’s decision to withdraw its employees from the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt is aimed at punishing Hamas for its security crackdown on Fatah members. But the decision, which was announced on Sunday night, is also designed to send a message to Egypt and Qatar – the only Arab countries that continue to be directly involved with the Palestinians – that the PA is unhappy with their dealings with Hamas.
The announcement came less than 48 hours after Abbas met in Cairo with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Abbas, according to Palestinian sources in Ramallah, has not been happy with Egypt’s recent decision to keep the Rafah terminal open on a permanent basis. He fears that the move will embolden Hamas and allow them to tighten their grip on the Strip.
Abbas, the sources said, has also expressed dissatisfaction with the apparent rapprochement between Egypt and Hamas. During his visit to Cairo, Abbas is said to have complained to Sisi that the Egyptian intelligence officials, who visit the Gaza Strip almost on a regular basis have developed friendly ties with Hamas leaders there.
It’s not clear whether Abbas notified Sisi of his decision to pull the PA employees out of the Rafah terminal. The pullout, nonetheless, is a severe blow to Egyptian efforts to end the Hamas-Fatah rift. The PA employees who were stationed at the border crossing were there in accordance with an Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation deal that was signed in Cairo in October 2017.
In the eyes of some Palestinians, Abbas’s decision is the final nail in the coffin of reconciliation between both Palestinian factions.
For years, Abbas opposed the reopening of the terminal unless Hamas allowed his loyalists to return to their jobs there. The PA’s presence at the border crossing ended after Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. The stationing of the PA employees at the border crossing was one of the few points in the agreement which the two sides agreed to implement.
By withdrawing his employees from the border, Abbas is trying to force the Egyptians to close the terminal again. He’s hoping that the Egyptians will not be able to work with Hamas security officers who are in control of the Palestinian side of the terminal, mainly because Sisi does not want to be seen as someone who’s cooperating with a movement that is an off-shoot of his arch-rivals, the Muslim Brotherhood organization.
Abbas also believes that an increased humanitarian and economic crisis in the Gaza Strip will drive Palestinians to revolt against Hamas.
Hamas security officers arrived at the Rafah terminal shortly after the announcement that PA employees had been ordered to leave. However, on Monday it still remained unclear how the Egyptians would react to Abbas’s move and whether they were planning on keeping the terminal open. Unconfirmed reports said that the Egyptians may open the border for a few hours on Tuesday.
Abbas’s decision also came as Qatar was set to deliver its third cash grant to the Gaza Strip. Some sources said that the delivery of the payment – $15 million – has been delayed for a few days due to the recent tensions along the Gaza-Israel border and the launching of rockets and incendiary devices toward Israel.
Abbas has made no secret of his deep concern over the arrangement reached between Qatar and Israel to provide the grants to the Gaza Strip. In recent speeches, Abbas complained that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was personally funding Hamas. Abbas wants the Palestinians to believe that Israel, Qatar, the US and Hamas are part of a larger conspiracy to impose the “deal of the century” on the Palestinians. The “deal of the century” refers to US President Donald Trump’s soon-to-be-announced plan for peace in the Middle East.
Abbas and his senior officials claim that the purported plan – which remains to be seen – envisages the creation of a separate Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, leaving most of the West Bank and east Jerusalem under Israeli control.
Abbas has been arguing that the delivery of the Qatari funds to the Gaza Strip may embolden Hamas at the cost of his government. He wants the money to be channeled through his government and not handed directly to Hamas. The pullout from the Rafah terminal is also designed to send a message to Qatar that Abbas and the PA are the only sole legitimate representatives of the Palestinians, and nothing will work in the Gaza Strip without the PA president’s blessing. Yet, Abbas’s move is unlikely to cause any concern in Qatar because the funds are being delivered to the Gaza Strip, with the help of Israel, through the Erez border crossing.
On Monday, several PA officials in Ramallah said that the decision to abandon the Rafah terminal would be followed by a series of punitive measures that could eventually result in a full PA disengagement from the Gaza Strip. One of the officials, Hussein al-Sheikh, revealed that the PA leadership was planning financial, administrative and political measures designed to “besiege” and undermine Hamas. Other officials said that Abbas has reached the conclusion that there can never be peace between his Fatah faction and Hamas as long as the Islamist movement is in power in Gaza.
On Monday, Fatah leaders claimed that Hamas has arrested more than 1,000 of their men in the Gaza Strip in the past few days. Several Fatah activists with black eyes and bruises all over their bodies posted photos of themselves on Facebook in recent days. They claimed that they had been tortured or severely beaten by Hamas officials.
The Hamas clampdown was aimed at preventing Fatah from holding a major rally in the Gaza Strip to celebrate the 54th anniversary of the launching of its first armed attack on Israel. Hamas feared that the rally would turn into a show of force for Fatah in the Gaza Strip. Hamas said it was concerned that the rally would trigger violent clashes between Abbas loyalists and supporters of Mohammed Dahlan, the deposed Fatah official who has been openly challenging the PA president. Fatah eventually canceled the rally that was planned for Monday and blamed Hamas for threatening and detaining its men in the Strip.
Hamas and other Palestinian opposition factions are now saying that the pullout from the Rafah terminal shows that Abbas is trying to help Trump impose his “deal of the century.” Abbas decided to pull out from the border crossing in order to isolate the Gaza Strip and to turn it into a separate Palestinian state. Interestingly, this is the same charge that Abbas has been making against Hamas.
Unless Egypt or any other Arab country steps in to contain the situation, it appears that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are headed towards a final divorce. Judging from the exchange of fiery rhetoric between PA and Hamas officials, it will take a miracle to stop the two parties from reaching the point of no return.