CAIRO — The Palestinian Authority pulled its staff from the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on Jan. 7 over what it called the “brutal practices” of Hamas, which controls the coastal enclave.
The PA said in a statement, “This decision comes in light of the latest developments and the brutal practices of the de facto gangs in our beloved sector and stems from responsibilities toward our beloved people in the Gaza Strip and in an attempt to alleviate the pressure from the blockade. Since we took over the Rafah crossing, Hamas has been hindering our employees there from doing their job. We endured a lot to give our Egyptian brethren a chance to try and end the division.”
The statement, which was published on the eve of the PA’s withdrawal from the Rafah crossing Jan. 6, read, “Hamas insists on perpetuating the division with its practices, the most recent of which being the arrests and abuses of our employees. We have come to realize that our employees’ presence there is futile.”
The Hamas-run Interior Ministry in the Gaza Strip took over control of the Rafah crossing following the PA’s withdrawal. The handover took place after midnight on Monday, in the presence of an official delegation of the Ministry of Interior. It is unknown whether the crossing will be operational following the change. Egypt had closed the crossing due to the Christmas holidays and festivities and kept it closed after Hamas took over.
Mohammed Hamed, a researcher in international law and foreign relations, believes that the PA’s move indicates that the reconciliation effort has taken a very serious and dangerous turn, but does not mean a complete collapse. Hamed told Al-Monitor, “The Palestinian reconciliation has faced several impediments before and continues to face obstacles. The PA’s decision, however, is a major blow to the reconciliation. This was a loss but there are still other rounds between Hamas and Fatah under Egyptian auspices.”
He said that Egypt's mediation to calm tension and end the division will benefit its own security. Aid to the Palestinians goes through the Rafah crossing, which is also a portal for extremists and terrorist elements seeking to carry out operations inside Egypt, particularly in Sinai.
Hamed noted that the PA was supposed to take control of the Gaza Strip’s crossings, including Rafah, in 2017, under the Egyptian-sponsored Palestinian reconciliation agreement. But it was unable to fully do so.
“The faltering reconciliation negotiations between Fatah and Hamas is nothing new. Both factions have been at odds and trading accusations since the beginning of the internal division in mid-2007, following Hamas' unilateral takeover of the Gaza Strip,” he added.
Hussein al-Sheikh, Minister of Civil Affairs and a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, said in a Jan. 7 interview on al-Ghad TV that the only condition for the staff's return to Rafah is for “Hamas leaders to sit at the table and have a serious talk about ending the division.”
He went on, “Partial solutions are not working and our Egyptian brothers have become aware of this. The PA’s findings confirm that Hamas is not ready for [reconciliation] at this moment. When Hamas is ready to make this leap of faith, we will welcome it. But we will no longer agree to have a presence just for show in the Gaza Strip.”
Meanwhile, Hamas political bureau member Moussa Abu Marzuq said that the PA’s decision on Rafah does not bode well. He wrote in a Jan. 6 tweet, “The PA has been conducting a media attack via statements by [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas, who is accusing 70% of the people of treason, claiming that Hamas is hijacking Gaza, stirring sedition and massacres. This is in addition to cutting the salaries of the people who are not loyal to Fatah. What is coming is worse, but Gaza will remain steadfast despite the harm.”
Khaled Okash, director of the National Center for Security Studies in Egypt, told Al-Monitor via a telephone interview that the reconciliation is a very thorny process given the intricacies of the Palestinian situation and the differences of views of which Egypt was very well aware before signing the reconciliation agreement.
“Yet the Egyptian officials have spared no effort to calm the situation,” said Okasha. “Efforts for reconciliation, however, are still ongoing," he added, stressing that the Egyptian side has contacted several PA officials to try to undo the pullout.
“All positive future scenarios are still plausible,” he concluded. But Egypt has yet to announce a plan to end the stalemate.
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