On Wednesday, May 16, a new Palestinian Authority government was sworn in in Ramallah. Similar to the previous cabinet, this is another technocrat government with no political party representatives. The new/old Prime Minister is Salam Fayyad, and most of his ministers also held positions in the previous government.
Although the Ramallah media and PA spokesmen played down the importance of the appointment of a new government, it is of major political significance. It is a clear indication that the chances of establishing a unity government with Hamas are practically zero.
The East Jerusalem weekly Al-Fajr al- Jadid headlined Hamas’s harsh reaction to the new government: “This increases the rift between Ramallah and Gaza, and is a slap in the face to the efforts of reconciliation.”
However, the new Fayyad cabinet set off warning bells in Gaza. Hamas apparently was not keen to slam the door entirely on a unity government and by the end of May there was talk of another round of reconciliation talks.
The swearing-in of the new cabinet in Ramallah bolsters even further the status quo of the existence of two separate Palestinian governments. It is becoming a fait accompli that there are now two Palestinian states: one in the West Bank, whose capital is Ramallah, which is internationally recognized; and the second in Gaza.
“The Hamas government in Gaza functions very well,” says Mkhaimar Abusada, Professor of Political Science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza – an opinion widely shared. There is an economic boom in Gaza – especially compared with the previously depressed economy.
New construction projects are underway.
The government is paving roads and residential towers are rising in many areas.
An abundance of building materials is smuggled from Egypt through tunnels in Rafah, with the approval of Hamas and the new Egyptian regime. The Egyptians also allow the passage of civilians but not goods through the Rafah Crossing. Women pass through unhindered. Men aged between 18 and 40 need permits.
There is also an easing of restrictions on the transfer of goods from Israel, and business people from Gaza are passing through the Erez Crossing to Israel in larger numbers. In the last few weeks, Israel has even begun to facilitate the export of Gaza products. Both the economic blockade and the political siege on Gaza have practically ended. The main reason is the change of the regime in Egypt and the emergence of pro- Hamas groups there.
The livelihood of approximately 1,500,000 Gaza residents is based on salaries from public institutions. This is what enables Gaza to survive. Nearly 200,000 employees in Gaza get a monthly salary. Some 50,000 are civil servants, mostly teachers and employees of the health system and other services, who are paid by the PA in Ramallah. An equal number get salaries from the Hamas government, which collects taxes from the tunnel smuggling. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh visited Tehran a few months ago and collected large sums of money from his Iranian patrons. Thousands more workers get salaries from UNRWA, the UN agency which deals with Palestinian refugees, and other international organizations.
How does the establishment of a new/old government in Ramallah affect the attempts at reconciliation? In order to understand this, one must go back three months to the dramatic meeting in February between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Qatar, which gave birth to the so-called “Doha Agreement.”
The agreement was a major blow to Fayyad’s prestige. It was seen as a significant step forward in the process of reconciliation between the PA in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza. In essence, it put an end to the dispute over who would head the Palestinian unity government. Abbas had insisted for some time that Fayyad would be the unity prime minister. Hamas strongly objected. Abbas eventually capitulated – as did Hamas.
The compromise was that Abbas himself would form the new government, based on the principle of continuing the nonviolent struggle against Israel and, most importantly, that this government would take necessary action to hold parliamentary and presidential elections.
Major differences separate the Fatah-led PA and Hamas on Israel. Hamas refuses to recognize the peace agreements, so it was decided to defer dealing with the Israeli issue until after the elections.
But the two sides failed to reach an agreement on holding elections. Hamas demanded guarantees from Abbas that Hamas representatives would be able to participate in the elections in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, without interference by the Israeli authorities. Abbas and his representatives said that they were not able to give such guarantees.
The result was that the Doha Agreement crashed and burned. Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas leaders in Gaza, didn’t like the agreement anyway. So there are no elections and no reconciliation.
Fayyad requested and received renewed affirmation as prime minister in Ramallah.
And the inevitable result has been that Gaza is turning into an independent mini-state.
Prof. Abusada asserts that even in the euphoric days of the Doha Agreement, he did not believe that it was possible to achieve reconciliation between the West Bank and Gaza. “It is not just a clash between two different political approaches,” he tells The Report, “but also an irreconcilable power struggle.”
Hamas and Fatah cannot agree who will take over command of the security apparatus in Gaza. They failed to reach agreement on the release of each other’s prisoners detained in the West Bank and Gaza. Even though the government in Ramallah is the only authority that can issue official Palestinian passports, it will not issue them to Hamas activists in Gaza.
In Gaza, Hamas prohibits the distribution of Al-Quds, Al-Ayyam, and Al-Hayat al- Jadida, the daily newspapers published in the West Bank. At the same time, the PA bans the distribution of the Hamas journal Falastin in the West Bank. The bans are just petty politics since all these newspapers have full online editions, and whoever wants can read them either on the West Bank or in Gaza on a daily basis. Most of them are unreliable propaganda sheets, especially Al-Hayat al-Jadida, which is published under the auspices of the PA in Ramallah, and whose workers receive a government salary.
What once appeared to be a temporary arrangement of two Palestinian governments has thus become a permanent state of affairs. Gaza, in particular, and the Palestinians, as a whole, have stopped being a central subject of interest in the region and around the world. A brief survey of Arab media reveals that interest in Palestinian affairs is gradually decreasing. While Al Jazeera used to have dozens of items every week about the Palestinians, now there are only a few. The same goes for the international media. The United States is preoccupied with its own internal politics, Europe is stuck in a severe economic crisis, and the Arab world is interested in Syria, Egypt and the Arab Spring turmoil – not in Gaza and the Palestinians.