Gaza handover delay raises fresh doubts over Palestinian unity deal


Palestinian rival factions have delayed the handover of power in the Gaza Strip by at least 10 days, stoking fears on Thursday that a landmark deal to end their decade-long feud may be set to fail.

A series of Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip in response to mortar fire at its forces meanwhile were a further sign on Thursday of the difficulties facing the Palestinian reconciliation bid.

Fatah and Hamas announced the handover delay late on Wednesday after sharp disagreements derailed a plan to return civil power in the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority by Friday.

The handover would end Islamist movement Hamas's 10-year dominance of the blockaded Palestinian enclave and had raised hopes that deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the territory could be addressed. A range of complex issues remain to be resolved, including security control of the Gaza Strip and the fate of two separate civil administrations.

Previous attempts at reconciliation between Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah movement, based in the occupied West Bank and his Islamist rivals from Hamas have previously failed. The two factions have not publicly presented a plan for how they will resolve remaining issues before the new December 10 deadline under the Egyptian-brokered accord.

Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority minister, said he doubted a true handover could occur by the target date, though partial progress may allow the factions to keep the accord alive.

"This decision (to delay) was taken under pressure from the Egyptian delegation," he said. "The Egyptian delegation wants success, so they suggested 10 days and promised to continue their presence there and to put pressure on the two sides. I personally doubt that they can solve all those issues quickly."

Wednesday's late-night announcement followed a day of turbulence related to the reconciliation deal signed in Cairo on 12 October.

Fatah's top negotiator, Azzam al-Ahmad, told journalists on Wednesday that Hamas was "not committed to the agreement it signed in Cairo."

In response, senior Hamas official Bassem Naim accused Fatah of "manoeuvres" to avoid going through with the deal. Hamas also accuses Abbas of violating the spirit of the agreement by so far refusing to lift punitive measures, including a cut in electricity payments for Gaza.

On Thursday, Israel's military said it struck at least six military posts in the strip, including those for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, after mortar fire from the enclave targeted its forces. Three Palestinians were reported wounded, while no Israelis were injured.

There was no sign of a link to the reconciliation accord, but the flare-up was another illustration of the difficulties linked to Gaza, which has seen three wars with Israel since 2008.

Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip since seizing it in a near civil war with Fatah in 2007, leaving the Palestinians with two separate administrations. A first deadline under the accord was met, with Hamas handing control of Gaza's borders to the PA on 1 November, but far more difficult issues remain.

As tensions built on Wednesday, Abbas ordered an immediate stop to public statements on reconciliation "for the sake of the Palestinian national interest and our relationship with our Egyptian brothers", official news agency WAFA said.

Palestinian political analyst Nour Odeh said on Thursday this was indication that the process could still be salvaged.

"You have a process in which thousands of people are involved," she told journalists. "I expect these delays and complications to happen. I think both sides do as well."

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem also denied the process had failed, as did a senior Palestinian Authority official.

"Hamas will continue to the furthest point to make the reconciliation succeed. This is a strategic decision we will not retreat from," Qassem said.

In Gaza, optimism was in short supply, however, with many residents expecting the process to collapse.

"All the people want to succeed with reconciliation," said Abdul Latif Abu Abdo, a 45-year-old who sells vegetables in Gaza City. "But both sides are cheating the people – Fatah doesn't want it, Hamas doesn't want it."

After the 2007 power shift, the PA continued to pay around 60,000 staff in Gaza, despite the vast majority not working. Hamas has hired around 50,000 civil servants to replace them over the past decade and the fate of those staff is a key sticking point, with unions insisting on a settlement.

The reconciliation agreement stipulates they have until February to find a solution for the Gaza employees, which could include merging the two civil services. The future of the police force in Gaza as well as Hamas's powerful armed wing are other key disputes, with the Islamist group refusing to disarm.

Abbas insists the PA have security control of the enclave of two million people.    (AFP)

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