The Palestinian political system is heading towards a major crossroads as a result of the struggle to succeed President Mahmoud Abbas and the fragmentation of Palestinian territory. With little imminent hope for a two-state solution, the rehabilitation of Gaza is an important area where meaningful improvement can be achieved.

 

There is growing awareness among European officials and others that the Palestinian political system is heading towards a significant crossroads, which largely revolves around the struggle to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and ongoing fragmentation of Palestinian political representation and territory. In a rare sign of progress though, the last weeks saw tentative yet serious steps towards bridging the divide between Gaza and the West Bank, which has existed since the infighting that followed Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections.

Palestinian reunification and rehabilitation of Gaza are key

With little imminent hope of achieving a two-state solution and ending Israel’s occupation, Palestinian reunification and the rehabilitation of Gaza are important areas where a degree of meaningful improvement can – and must – be achieved. The current initiative therefore represents an opening to provide at least partial relief for Gaza’s inhabitants and temporarily stabilise the Palestinian political scene – two of the most urgent priorities in the short term.

For all the hype, recent developments are not unprecedented and they neither signal an imminent end to the Gaza-West Bank divide nor a return to a semblance of normality for Gazans.

As part of an Egyptian-sponsored three-step plan, in mid-September Hamas announced its intention to dissolve the administrative committee that it set up to govern the Gaza Strip. The establishment of this committee had in the past provoked the ire of President Abbas, who saw it as a shadow government. Its dissolution created some initial political room and momentum for the ceremonial return of a Palestinian Authority government of the Gaza Strip, led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, for the first time since 2014. It also created political room for a follow-up meeting between Hamas and Fatah in Cairo to begin technical discussions to advance a reconciliation agreement between these two political factions.

For all the hype, recent developments are not unprecedented and they neither signal an imminent end to the Gaza-West Bank divide nor a return to a semblance of normality for Gazans. In fact, the last ten years have already seen a number of regional and international initiatives to promote Palestinian re-unification, the most successful of which allowed for the formation of a short-lived government of national consensus in June 2014 composed of ostensibly independent technocratic figures supported by Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah.

While there are indications we could once again be heading towards a government of national consensus, there are a number of contentious technical files that will first need to be resolved. As the failure of past attempts shows, returning Gaza to Palestine will also require an elusive agreement on the political agenda for a future government of national consensus. This will be the subject of a third meeting in Cairo, currently scheduled for 21 November, that will bring together all Palestinian political factions.

Important role for the EU to play

External actors have a big say in the fate of the process itself and can do much to facilitate – or at the very least can ensure that they do not obstruct – this process. Without such external support and encouragement, it is quite likely that the limited progress achieved so far will peter out.

Europe must get behind and encourage the current initiative in order to help translate any momentum into meaningful change for Gazans.

As the largest donor to President Abbas’s Palestinian Authority and a member of the international Quartet (alongside Russia, the UN and the US) the EU has an important role to play. Europe must get behind and encourage the current initiative in order to help translate any momentum into meaningful change for Gazans – beginning with an easing of PA and Israeli restrictions.

The EU should provide President Abbas with cover (and impetus) to rescind his punitive measures against Gaza’s electricity and healthcare system which have increased humanitarian suffering. This is all the more critical with the approach of winter. Alongside this, the EU should welcome the deployment of Palestinian Authority forces to Gaza’s border as an important step that should allow for an easing of Israeli restrictions, and offer to deploy its own technical assistance mission (EUBAM).

Looking ahead, the EU should express its willingness to continue funding a new Palestinian government of national consensus (even one that includes Hamas figures) so long as it remains committed to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) platform. It should also amend (or at the very least clarify) its no-contact policy to allow for political engagement with moderate figures within Hamas, and enable European humanitarian organisations to operate more effectively in Gaza.

Alongside this, the EU should push for the revival and reconvening of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), including demanding that Israel release the 12 PLC members currently in detention, as a first step towards new legislative elections and relegitimising Palestinian leadership structures.