The Palestinian Authority (PA) cabinet met in Gaza City for the first time in more than decade on 3 October, providing a hair breadth silver lining to the dark clouds that have piled up around politics in the region. Despite the unpromising political outlook, the political currents that have come together to carry Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and his cabinet colleagues to Gaza give some tentative grounds for optimism in Palestinian politics. Hamdallah’s visit to Gaza and the cabinet meeting mark the most significant developments in attempt to re-unify Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza under a single leadership since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007. Hamas has indicated that it willing to allow the PA, dominated by the Fatah party, to resume administration of Gaza. There is also talk of new elections.
Both the PA and Hamas have arrived at this point from positions of weakness. Both are short of funds. The Palestinian economy is fragile and kept that way by Israeli constraints and pressure. Hamas has lost the support of financial backers in the wider Arab world as conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya have attracted more attention. It is not only need that has driven the adversaries together, Egypt has also played a role. Egypt has brokered the current breakthrough and brought the two sides together. This marks a change in the current Egyptian government’s attitude towards Hamas; a change fostered by a re-appraisal of the threat it faces on its north-east border.
Egypt has long been suspicious of Hamas with its link to the Muslim Brotherhood and in the past has co-operated with Israel in isolating the Hamas regime in Gaza. Now, Cairo sees the security threat in the north-east as coming from ISIS-linked or inspired groups. It is now in Egypt’s interest to have a stable entity in Gaza. The close security co-operation Egypt enjoys with Israel means that it has probably received at least tacit Israeli backing for its change in approach. Some Israeli co-operation is required. No Palestinian, including Hamdallah, can leave the West Bank without Israel’s say-so.
What next for this Palestinian detente? A unified Palestinian administration over both the West Bank and Gaza including the resumption of PA payments to Gaza would be a positive next step. Further positive developments would be the holding of new parliamentary elections and the formation of a new government that reflected the results. These will take time, continued co-operation between the PA and Hamas, continued engagement from Egypt and Israeli co-operation. It will be a long and rocky path towards a more stable and robust administration in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Important as they are, political developments will not be enough. Economic factors will be just as important to success. The Palestinian economy has been starved of investment and is subject to crippling constraints by Israel. These mean that Palestinian exporters cannot get their goods (especially agricultural products) to markets in a timely manner, companies face huge barriers to important raw materials and other goods and movement within the territories for both goods and people are highly restricted. In February 2011, Benjamin Netanyahu announced with great fanfare a package of measures to boost the Palestinian economy and lead to an “economic peace”. More than six years later, little of this package has been delivered.
Among the measures Netanyahu promised in 2011 were approval for water and sanitation projects in Gaza and the resumption of talks on the development of the Palestinian’s largest natural resource, the Gaza Marine gas field. There were also promises concerning construction projects in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Access to clean water and sanitation in Gaza remains at very low levels. During the summer, Gaza suffered crippling energy shortages. Talks on Gaza Marine did resume later in 2011 but led to nothing in the main due to Israeli demands for control over the project. Very few, if any, of the construction projects have gone ahead.
A stronger and more prosperous Palestinian economy is needed in both the West Bank and Gaza to underpin any positive political developments. Without a sustained improvement in living standards, militant groups inspired by ISIS will find fertile grounds to recruit. A weak Palestinian entity (even with Fatah and Hamas co-operating) would be less able to withstand the emergence of new militant groups in the territories. Any benefit to Palestinians, Israelis and Egyptians from a stronger, more prosperous and more peaceful Palestinian entity would be lost. A re-united Palestinian entity with a vibrant economy is in the interests of all peoples in the region. The alternative is a repeat of the cycle of violence with the rise of new militant groups.