The 30 per cent reduction in the salaries of Palestinian Authority (PA) employees who stayed in Gaza and left their jobs following instructions from President Mahmoud Abbas and his then head of government Salam Fayyad is not only an action that can be changed or revised. It is clear that it was actually a prelude to other measures that will be stricter and more painful and will affect various services and citizens, especially that the successive reconciliation governments have so far failed to solve the problems of other employees hired by the Hamas government in Gaza to replace their colleagues who stayed home, following the orders of Abbas.
The reaction to the salary cuts which affected citizens who followed the decisions of the Ramallah authority – affiliated with Fatah and other PLO factions – was very big. Nearly half a million people, representing almost one-third of the population of the Gaza Strip marched in the streets. The impact of the decision also extends to other sectors as it affects the overall economic cycle, leading to a decline in purchasing power in the Strip where unemployment is at about 60 per cent, according to the UN.
President Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to discuss the salary decision made by the government of Rami Al-Hamdallah demonstrates that the issue is not just an administrational procedure resulting from pressures on the budget, or austerity imposed upon the PA. If this was the case, it would include the whole country and not just part of it and it should be applied to all budget items, including various expenses of the PA and the PLO.
There is no ambiguity in this aspect. The message of President Abbas is clear and he has expressed it in Fatah meetings when he asked members of the Central Committee not to attack the government’s decision. Abbas even defended it, stressing that it is time to end the division and that Hamas has to decide before 25 April whether it will unconditionally hand over the Gaza Strip to the PA or if Hamas was going to run it on its own.
If the latter was going to be the case, according to Abbas, then other measures will be taken against the Strip, such as ending the PA’s responsibility for health, social and education services as well as the energy sector, up to the point of declaring Gaza a hostile entity.
The president decided to send a delegation from Fatah’s Central Committee headed by Mahmoud Al-Aloul to inform Hamas of this final warning, while putting prior restrictions to the delegation’s activity preventing them from discussing other issues. This coincided with a speech made by Palestinian judge Mahmoud Al-Habash on 14 April, when he said that Gaza is similar to the Al-Dirar Mosque, built by a community known as the hypocrites in Medina in the early days of Islam. The Prophet Mohammed gave orders to raze that false mosque, and Al-Habash stressed that the president has a legal, national and humanitarian duty to eradicate the abnormal situation in Gaza that he compared to the Al-Dirar Mosque.
So what has changed? The relationship between the two sides was moving towards more convergence and agreement. This was clear in Hamas’ response to the president’s request to facilitate the exit of representatives of Fatah from Gaza to Ramallah, and even sending a delegation to attend Fatah’s Seventh Conference which strengthened the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Abbas within Fatah against his opponents.
This convergence was also clear in the messages of Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal to the conference, the Beirut meeting, the Doha agreement and finally the information that leaked about a new document prepared by Hamas, which includes fundamental amendments to its charter and presents the movement as a national movement that adopts the establishment of a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Although the author of these lines has reservations to some of those amendments, they do show that Hamas is on the same path Fatah followed in the past, despite the conditions and restrictions the movement has put on moving in that direction.
It is worth recalling that the same conditions and restrictions were set by the Fatah movement at the beginning of its path towards the settlement process. President Abbas and the Fatah movement did not pick these indicators up. The threats to take further measures clearly mean that Fatah’s intention is to transfer the conflict with Hamas to a new stage. So, what has changed on the political scene that could lead to this situation? And what are the consequences going to be?
President Mahmoud Abbas succeeded in overcoming the pressures of the Arab Quartet that aimed at imposing the ousted leader, Mohammed Dahlan, on him. He finally, during his visit to Cairo, and at the Arab summit in Jordan, was able to put this issue behind him, even if only temporarily. He also succeeded in convening a Fatah conference and emerging with a new leadership that is consistent with his policies, transforming Fatah into a party of the PA.
At the same time, and through a meeting in Beirut, he was able to gain further legitimacy after he surprised Palestinian factions by agreeing to their requests regarding activating the Unified Leadership Framework and the formation of a dialogue committee to discuss the formation of a Palestinian National Council, even as those decisions remained on paper after the end of the meeting. After these internal arrangements, Abbas’s main interest is in attempting to revive his role in a peace process that is expected to be launched by US President Donald Trump; a hope that has been revived after receiving a message and an invitation from the latter.
Although the terms of the new peace process remain ambiguous, it is clear that President Abbas’s previous conditions for the resumption of the peace process, namely the release of the last batch of prisoners, the cessation of settlements and international backing to the peace process, have ended. The most that came out of the American position was a no to adding new settlements while allowing the expansion of existing ones. As for international backing for the peace process, it has been reduced only to what the two sides agree to in direct negotiations. This deprives the Palestinian negotiating team from all its weapons, and leaves it as an easy prey to the Israelis.
The Palestinian Authority has once again attached itself to the illusion of a settlement but this time based on an Arab solution. Palestinians will only receive little incentive in exchange for the normalisation of relations with some Arabs and guaranteeing a regional role for Israel. This solution may not exceed a form of a limited autonomy of the people and not the land, within large population groups. This will include economic and financial facilitations and promises of improving living standards, similar to those made after the signing of the Camp David agreement with Egypt and the catastrophic Oslo Accords, in the so-called economic solution, which will soon evaporate after exhausting the required political concessions.
The priority of Abbas is to re-engage in the peace process regardless of its shape, in light of the regional and international developments following the election of President Trump. He believes this could enable him to remain in the political scene until this stage is over. In order to achieve that, he does not need excess baggage that may put him in a place where he is accused of encouraging terror or supporting it, as Zionist officials boast about amid their criticism of the PA’s spending on humanitarian needs in Gaza Strip. Thus, he no longer needs to continue with Palestinian reconciliation negotiations, which have always clashed with different political agendas between the two sides. He also does not need anyone to share decision-making power with for the upcoming critical stage.
The PA could have said that the current situation in the Gaza Strip is a result of the continued occupation and blockade, and the failure of the peace process, which necessitates the emergence of different viewpoints to dealing with the occupation. This includes the right to resist it by all means and that ending this occupation can help reunite the two wings of the homeland. But to deal with the problem of division through taking harsh measures against the Gaza Strip such as the cessation of spending on health, education, social services and energy, is a collective punishment for the Palestinians in Gaza, and part of the tight siege on the Gaza Strip – a ready recipe for internal fighting.
Considering Gaza a hostile entity has serious repercussions. It legitimises the blockade imposed on Gaza, and takes the issue of division from being an internal Palestinian issue to a regional and international issue, making room for punitive measures affecting all Palestinians. It may also constitute a prelude to what has previously been proposed regarding the formation of an armed force in which regional countries may participate with a Palestinian front, which will lead to the re-ignition of an internal war that may spread to other areas, or legitimise new Israeli incursions. It will also steer attention away from the peace process itself, where attempts to follow it have constituted an excuse for those who call for such measures.
And what if Hamas agreed to hand over Gaza? What would be the fate of the resistance? Where will its weapons go? The PA will surely refuse its presence, arguing that legitimacy has only one weapon. In other words, what is required is the end of this form of resistance. This perhaps clarifies that the PA’s options for Hamas to either hand over the Gaza Strip or to run it on its own have the same result which is the preparation for a new internal Palestinian confrontation, leading the Palestinian cause into a new tunnel that sends it away from any just solution and hinders attempts of Palestinians to resist and defeat the occupation.
What is being planned is not an inevitable fate. There is still hope that many will become aware of the dangers of what is being prepared and that various Palestinian groups would take the initiative of solidarity with Gaza, and for Hamas to realize that if it follows the same path of settlement it would not protect it from liquidation. Gaza can be steadfast if it mobilised all its power, factions and people away from unilateralism and the illusion of authority. Perhaps it is a new battle imposed against our people but through unity, solidarity and struggle, they can win.
First published by Arab48 on 18 April 2017.