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Hamdallah visits Gaza Strip in fresh unity push

BEIT HANUN

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah arrived in Gaza on Monday for his first visit in two years, saying the Palestinian Authority (PA) would assume control of the strip after a decade of factional strife.

Hamdallah crossed the border with dozens of ministers and officials from the West Bank-based PA into the Hamas-run coastal enclave at around noon. The Islamists have controlled Gaza since a 2007 split but recently agreed to hand over civilian power to a unity government.

“The government began to exercise its roles in Gaza from today,” Hamdallah said at a press conference at the crossing. “We return to Gaza again to end the division and achieve unity.”

He was welcomed by thousands of Gazans, with hopes that this reconciliation plan can avoid the problems that wrecked several previous attempts. Hamdallah’s entry was delayed by around half an hour because of disputes between PA and Hamas security men, a security source said.

Hamas politicians and members of the premier’s Fatah faction greeted Hamdallah on arrival.

He is expected to meet Hamas’s overall leader Ismail Haniya and its Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar later, and chair a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

The event is meant to be the first significant step in a transfer of powers. Hamas ousted the PA in 2007 after a near civil war, but recently agreed to dissolve what has been seen as its rival administration and make way for a unity government.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s PA is the internationally recognised Palestinian government and supposed to steer its people to an independent Palestinian state.  The logistics of the visit are themselves an indication of Palestinian divisions and challenges.

Arriving by road from Occupied Ramallah, about 70km away in the West Bank, Hamdallah’s convoy crossed Israel and then transited the fortress-like Erez crossing into Gaza before passing a Hamas checkpoint. Hamas last month finally agreed to the PA’s return to Gaza, under pressure from the enclave’s powerful neighbour Egypt.

The group was squeezed by Abbas, who stopped paying Israel for electricity it supplies to Gaza, resulting in devastating power cuts.

For Gaza’s two million residents, the hope is to see an improvement in their miserable living conditions in the overcrowded and impoverished territory.

Abu Musa Hamduna, a 42-year-old Gazan, welcomes the return of central government.   “We call on it to take care of the young – this is the most important – and to resolve the electricity crisis and improve the living conditions of the people of Gaza,” he said.

Experts say that the prospect of social unrest among disgruntled Gazans was a factor in Hamas’s willingness to reconcile with Fatah, along with its growing isolation and perhaps a new pragmatism in its leadership.

Meanwhile, the top UN envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace hailed improving relations between the two major Palestinian factions on Monday, after Hamdallah visited Gaza.

Agencies