Palestinian reconciliation with Hamas faces perilous road ahead

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian prime minister is set to lead a large delegation of Fatah officials traveling from the West Bank to Gaza Monday in the most ambitious attempt to reconcile with the rival Hamas militant group after a 10-year rift.

In a significant concession, Hamas has offered to turn over all governing responsibilities to Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. But key sticking points, primarily Hamas’ refusal to disarm its powerful military wing, are likely to complicate or even derail the reconciliation efforts in the coming weeks.

Hamas won legislative elections in 2006 and the following year seized control of Gaza after overrunning the Fatah-led forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Since then, Abbas’ Palestinian Authority has governed only in autonomous enclaves of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, while repeated attempts to reconcile with Hamas have failed. Hamas have not held elections since.

In previous deals, including one brokered by Egypt in 2011, both sides professed willingness to reconcile, but ultimately balked at giving up power in their respective territories.

They agreed in 2014 to form a national reconciliation government, but Hamas’s shadow government has effectively continued ruling Gaza since.

But conditions have changed in recent years. Hamas has been weakened by years of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, international isolation and three devastating wars with Israel. Gaza today is mired in poverty, with unemployment approaching 50 percent and receiving just a few hours of electricity each day.

Abbas has also stepped up the pressure, saying he will no longer pay for electricity shipments to Gaza and cutting the salaries of tens of thousands of former civil servants and policemen who have sat idle since the Hamas takeover.

With the election of a new leader, Yehiyeh Sinwar, early this year and Egypt offering to ease its blockade, which has largely shuttered the border crossing that serves as Gaza’s main gateway to the outside world, Hamas now appears ready to deal.

On Sunday, Gaza was filled with a mood of optimism. Workers were painting a white fence outside Abbas’ abandoned official residence, and a Palestinian flag with the government logo was painted on the front door. On a main downtown street, a huge poster of Abbas and Hamdallah hung outside a souvenir store. “Welcome to Palestine’s beating heart: glorious Gaza,” it said.