Accord between leading Palestinian factions continues to falter
GAZA CITY - The two leading Palestinian factions missed another deadline Thursday to implement a reconciliation deal, potentially burying the landmark accord aimed at ending their decade-long split.
Islamist movement Hamas was to hand over power in the Gaza Strip by December to the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by secular movement Fatah.
But the handover was missed and a February 1 deadline for solving the issue of two rival civil services passed Thursday with no progress in sight.
While small changes have occurred since the deal was signed in October -- notably the handing over of Gaza's borders to the PA -- Hamas remains firmly in charge in Gaza.
Hamas and Fatah traded blame for what could turn out to be a gradual abandoning of the accord.
Senior Hassam official Bassem Naim said the Fatah-led PA had backed away from the deal "without clear reasons", while Fayez Abu Eita, a Fatah official in Gaza, called for Hamas to respect the deal.
Egypt, which brokered the agreement, has elections coming up and the focus of its leaders appears elsewhere.
Egyptian intelligence services chief Khaled Fawzy, the main broker of the deal, was replaced last month.
It was hoped that reconciliation could alleviate humanitarian suffering in Gaza, home to some two million people.
Earlier this week a senior United Nations warned Gaza was on the verge of "full collapse".
The reconciliation deal was also seen by some as a strategy for the Palestinians to face down an increasingly hostile US administration and right-wing Israeli government.
- 'Sense of trust' -
US President Donald Trump has suspended tens of millions of dollars in aid and threatened to withhold much more.
On Wednesday his administration added Hamas leader Ismail Haniya to a terror blacklist.
Hamas won 2006 parliamentary elections but Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah and much of the international community refused to accept the result, leading to increased strife.
A year later, Hamas violently seized control of Gaza.
Since then two separate civil administrations emerged.
The PA kept on its payroll tens of thousands of employees, who stayed home but still claimed their salaries, while Hamas employed tens of thousands to replace them.
This and the as yet unresolved future of Hamas's vast armed wing are the two key issues that have derailed previous reconciliation bids.
"They were trying to negotiate the issues over time in order to build a sense of trust, but these issues -- the employees and Hamas's standing army -- are the biggest hurdles, and it's clear they haven't surpassed them," said Grant Rumley, who focuses on Palestinian politics at the US think tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Since October, Hamas has largely stopped paying its staff, saying it is the responsibility of the PA under the agreement while last year PA staff have had their salaries cut by 30 percent.
Bashir Amer, 30, who works at the Hamas-run education ministry, said he was struggling to care for his family.
"They give us 1,000 shekels ($300, 235 euros) and it is not enough to eat and drink," he said.
- 'Backed into a corner' -
Hugh Lovatt, Israel and Palestine coordinator at the European Council of Foreign Relations think tank, said Egypt's Fawzy "had really been driving this process".
"It is unclear whether Egyptian sponsorship of the ongoing reconciliation process -- which has been critical -- will continue in his absence."
Meanwhile Hamas, which remains heavily armed, has appointed former military figures to senior roles in the past year, most notably former military leader Yahya Sinwar who became its chief Gaza.
Fears have grown that Hamas -- which has fought three wars with Israel since 2008 -- could opt for war again, Rumley said.
"My sense is that Sinwar and the rest of the military faction do not want a war now because they're focused on ameliorating the situation, primarily through reconciliation talks," he said.
"When those fail and Hamas is backed into a corner, how will its new leadership respond?"