Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

In besieged Gaza, Palestinian unity deal sparks hope, caution

Fatah and Hamas agree to form a new government and hold elections, moves many Gazans hope will ease the blockade

GAZA — Shock, disbelief, elation and a surge of giddy optimism were among the reactions of Gazans to Wednesday’s news that Fatah and Hamas had agreed to form a unity government that, if implemented, would end the seven-year schism that separated Gaza from the West Bank. An Israeli airstrike on the besieged enclave the same day, however, served as a reminder of the scale of the challenges that lie ahead.

Crowds of people gathered to celebrate outside Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s house in the Al-Shati refugee camp, known as Beach Camp. (More than two-thirds of Gaza’s population consists of families of refugees who lost their homes inside what is now Israel when it was created in 1948.) As the sun set along the Gazan coast, fishermen returning to port were greeted by a bustle of celebration, as refugee children played on the sand and crowded around Palestinian television news network vans parked on the crowded street outside the refugee camp.

A group of youth activists gathered outside Haniyeh’s house and then moved through the refugee camp into central Gaza to celebrate, and to demand that Hamas make sure the reconciliation deal is implemented on the ground. The agreement requires that new elections be held for the Palestinian Legislative Council and presidency — both structures of the Palestinian Authority, which hasn’t held elections since the 2006 legislative poll won by Hamas — as well as for the ruling body of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). It is the PLO that conducts peace negotiations with Israel, and opening that body up to more democratic representation that would include participation by Hamas and Islamic Jihad — groups that have until now rejected the U.S.-led peace process — could alter the course of the Palestinian national movement.

But for Palestinians who’ve suffered a punishing economic siege and repeated Israeli military bombardments over the past seven years, the reconciliation announcement was greeted as a beacon of hope.

PLO ‘optimistic’

Friends Mohammed Baraka and Yaser Abu Afesh, both of whom are deaf, waved their hands in excitement at the Square of the Unknown Soldier in central Gaza. Abu Afesh put his hand on his heart and gestured to the sky, showing Al Jazeera a photo of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on his mobile phone.

“I found out about the reconciliation through the Internet — I was reading,” Baraka said using sign language. His hands shook with excitement and nerves as he wrote further comments in Arabic on notepaper.

Palestinian journalist Sami Ajrami also expressed both shock and elation. He works for ANSA news agency, and has been able to leave the tiny strip only three times in seven years, despite his work with international news networks. He worked for Israel’s Channel 2 before 2007, when Hamas seized control of Gaza after a violent power struggle with Fatah forces.

“It’s the first time a huge PLO delegation has come to Gaza to discuss things from an optimistic point of view,” Ajrami said. “This is the first time that Hamas haven’t put any obstacles in front of reconciliation efforts.”

Ajrami hoped the reconciliation meant he would soon be able to travel to Egypt, and that it would free up the strangled Gazan economy. “We’ve been collectively punished by Israel and international communities, because they’re not dealing with Hamas,” he explained.

Most important, he said, “it’s the first time we’ve been presented with a schedule,” noting that Abbas was expected back in Gaza within five weeks to complete the process of establishing a new government.

‘I will believe it when I see it’

The crowd that was gathered in the central square in Gaza grew as news of the agreement began reaching people on the street. “I swear to God the division is dead,” they chanted, “the division is out of the house, my people are happy.”

“Unity, freedom, dignity and humanity,” they yelled and sang.

Wearing a black-and-white keffiyeh and a Che Guevara T-shirt, Samah Ahmad seemed skeptical about the agreement. “I will believe in reconciliation if I touch it on the ground,” she told Al Jazeera. “We’re still looking for freedom; we’re still looking for humanity. We want to feel we’re one. I will believe it when I see it.”

Ahmad doubted that reconciliation would be a silver bullet for a crippled economy that has suffered further deprivations since Egypt’s military closed tunnels from its territory to Gaza. She stressed the need for open borders and freedom of movement, and for reconciliation “with the people themselves.”

Rehab Kenan, a woman posing for local media wrapped in a Palestinian flag, said in Arabic, “We’ve been waiting a long time, years for this to happen. We thank our leaders for the happiness they have brought us.” She also echoed hopes for a turnabout in the Gazan economy: “I have two sons, and this reconciliation will offer work and build their future.”

Before the announcement, Gazan strawberry farmer Mansour Albudi, who exports a small number of strawberries to Europe, told Al Jazeera that his patience with Hamas was virtually threadbare.

“I hate Hamas. When they came the situation became so bad, especially for the farmers,” Albudi said. Before 2007, he exported 30 tons of strawberries to Europe every year; now it’s just 200 kilograms. “If I could change just one thing, it would be this government in Gaza — they just live for themselves,” he said.

The end of a division?

The agreement obliges its signatories to cooperate in the holding of elections within six months for the governing structure of the PA and the PLO. A Palestinian Authority unity government headed by Abbas but staffed with technocrats will be formed within five weeks, which will prepare the way for the elections. A special PLO committee will meet within five weeks to discuss implementing the agreement’s requirements.

“I am happy to declare the end of the period of inter-Palestinian division,” said Haniyeh after announcing the deal. He told reporters at a press conference in Gaza that the agreement would uphold previous reconciliation agreements that were never implemented.

“We agreed to implement all the articles that were agreed in the past according to agreements in Doha and Cairo.”

Many political, administrative and security questions remain unanswered under the new deal. Key among them will be the fate of the security forces: Even though Hamas won the 2006 elections that made it the ruling party in the PA, Fatah prevented the elected government from taking control of the security forces. Then, in 2007, Hamas’ armed units violently ejected the Fatah-controlled security forces — which they believed were preparing to stage a coup — and took control over Gaza’s security. No decision has yet been made on whether Hamas will dismantle its forces, or fold them into the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, which continue to coordinate operations with Israel.

As celebrations carried on into the night, fireworks and celebratory gunshots were fired into the air across Gaza city. Palestinian medical personnel reported that Israeli jets had attacked the northern Gaza Strip after rockets were fired into Israel from the territory earlier in the week. Even if they do manage to resolve the complicated challenges of reunification and creating a single government and security force, the central challenge that will face Hamas, Fatah and the people who vote for them and other parties is to decide on what strategy they’ll use to pursue Palestinian national goals.

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