Palestinians end decade-long split

Hamas's new deputy leader Salah al-Aruri (seated L) and Fatah's Azzam al-Ahmad (seated R) sign a reconciliation deal in Cairo on Thursday, October 12, 2017, as the two rival Palestinian movements ended their decade-long split following negotiations overseen by Egypt. (AFP / KHALED DESOUKI)
Updated 13 October 2017

Palestinians end decade-long split

GAZA/CAIRO: Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation deal on Thursday after Hamas agreed to hand over administrative control of Gaza, including the key Rafah border crossing, a decade after seizing the enclave in a civil war.
The deal brokered by Egypt bridges a bitter gulf between the Western-backed mainstream Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, an Islamist movement designated as a terrorist group by Western countries and Israel.
Palestinian unity could also bolster Abbas’s hand in any revival of talks on a Palestinian state in Israeli-occupied territory. Internal Palestinian strife has been a major obstacle to peacemaking, with Hamas having fought three wars with Israel since 2008 and continuing to call for its destruction.
Hamas’s agreement to transfer administrative powers in Gaza to a Fatah-backed government marked a major reversal, prompted partly by its fears of financial and political isolation after its main patron and donor, Qatar, plunged in June into a major diplomatic dispute with key allies like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Qatar of supporting Islamist militants, which it denies.
Israel viewed the Palestinian accord warily, saying it must abide by previous international agreements and terms set out by the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators — including the recognition of Israel and the disarming of Hamas.
“Israel will examine developments in the field and act accordingly,” said a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.
Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets across Gaza on Thursday in celebration of the unity pact, with loudspeakers on open cars blasting national songs, youths dancing and hugging and many waving Palestine and Egyptian flags.
Egypt helped mediate several previous attempts to reconcile the two movements and form a power-sharing unity government in Gaza and the West Bank, where Abbas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) are based.
Hamas and Fatah agreed in 2014 to form a national reconciliation government, but the deal soon dissipated in mutual recriminations with Hamas continuing to dominate Gaza.
“The legitimate government, the government of consensus, will return according to its responsibilities and according to the law,” Fatah delegation chief Azzam Al-Ahmed said at the signing ceremony in Cairo.
He said the unity government would “run all institutions without exception,” including all border crossings with Israel and in Rafah, Gaza’s only access point with Egypt.
The agreement calls for Abbas’s presidential guard to assume responsibility of the Rafah crossing on Nov. 1, and for the full handover of administrative control of Gaza to the unity government to be completed by Dec. 1.
Analysts said the deal is more likely to stick than earlier ones, given Hamas’s growing isolation and realization of how hard Gaza, its economy hobbled by border blockades and infrastructure shattered by wars with Israel, was to govern and rebuild.
Deeper Egyptian involvement, believed to have been backed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, also helped cement the deal.
“We in Hamas are determined and are serious this time and just like all other times ... We have dissolved the administrative committee (shadow government)... We have opened the door to reaching this reconciliation,” Saleh Arouri, the head of Hamas negotiators in Cairo, said after the signing ceremony.
Delegations from the two rivals have been in talks in Cairo this week to work out the details of the administrative handover, including security in Gaza and at border crossings.

Key was the Rafah crossing, once the gateway to the world for the 2 million people packed into the small impoverished territory. Fatah said it should be run by the presidential guards, supervised by the European Union border agency, EUBAM, instead of the Hamas-linked employees now deployed.
“EUBAM Rafah maintains readiness to redeploy to the Rafah crossing point when the security and political situations will allow,” said Mohammad Al-Saadi, press officer for the EU Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support.
Any decision on EUBAM deployment would be taken in conjunction with the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s government, he said in a statement.
Some 3,000 Fatah security officers are to join the Gaza police force. But Hamas would remain the most powerful armed Palestinian faction, with around 25,000 well-armed militants.
Both rivals hope the deal’s proposed deployment of security personnel from the PA to Gaza’s borders will encourage Egypt and Israel to lift tight restrictions at frontier crossings — a step urgently needed to help Gaza revive a war-shattered economy.
Another major issue in talks on the deal was the fate of 40,000 to 50,000 employees Hamas has hired in Gaza since 2007, a thorny point that helped crash the 2014 unity accord.
Under the deal, these employees will receive 50 percent of what their PA salary would be — or equivalent to what they are paid now by Hamas — pending vetting of their professional qualifications.
Hamas and Fatah are also debating a potential date for presidential and legislative elections and reforms of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is in charge of long-stalled peace efforts with Israel.
The last Palestinian legislative election was in 2006, when Hamas scored a surprise victory. That sparked the political rupture between Hamas and Fatah, which eventually led to their short civil war in Gaza.
(Reporting by Nidal Al-Mughrabi in Gaza, and Hesham Hajjali in Cairo and Ali Sawafta in the West Bank)

With Damascus secure, Syrians in the city enjoy a bomb-free Eid

A crowded market in Shaalan, Damascus. (Photo by Eman Tello)
Updated 14 min 41 sec ago

With Damascus secure, Syrians in the city enjoy a bomb-free Eid

  • For the first Eid Al-Fitr, since the war started, many Damascus residents are celebrating with a sense of relief
  • And while Damascus may enjoy a relatively safe Eid this year, violence continues in other parts of the country, such as Afrin and Idlib

DAMASCUS: Leen, a young Syrian mother, hasn’t been to Damascus since 2015. After the war started seven years ago, her husband has dissuaded the 27-year-old from visiting the Syrian capital from Bahrain, where they live.

This year, however things are different. For the first Eid Al-Fitr, since the war started, many Damascus residents are celebrating with a sense of relief, unencumbered by the threat of rebel and extremist groups launching mortar attacks on the city.

“I am so thrilled to finally be able to spend a safe holiday in my hometown and introduce my little daughter to the family,” Leen told Arab News.

On May 21, the Syrian army announced that the capital  and its surroundings were fully secure for the first time since 2011 after it cleared Daesh’s last strongholds south of the capital.

Even though central Damascus was relatively untouched by the violence, the capital been the target of missile attacks, mortar shells and vehicle explosions and the threat usually escalated during the holidays.

The areas captured in May included the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, which was the site of an intense barrel-bombing campaign by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the early years of the conflict.

And while Damascus may enjoy a relatively safe Eid this year, violence continues in other parts of the country, such as Afrin, which is under Turkish control, Idlib, and south-western Syria.

“On the first day of Eid Al-Fitr last year, while my friends and I were having lunch in Al-Qaymariyah— an ancient neighborhood in the Old City, we heard the whistles of missiles that then exploded nearby,” Zaid, a 28-year-old pharmacist, said. “Our families must have heard there were missiles, so all our phones started ringing and we were forced to request the bill and go straight home.

“I am very delighted nothing of the kind is likely to happen this Eid and I plan on going to Bab Tuma (an ancient city gate to Old Damascus), which was almost a daily target for the rebels’ missile attacks.”

Even children are feeling a difference this year. Fadia, 13, and her 8-year-old brother, Taym, wanted to spend the Eid playing outside.

“Mama never allowed us to go to amusement parks during Eid,” Fadia explained, “We only played inside at the mall or at home, where shells most likely cannot reach us.”

Nermeen Al-Kurdi, an agricultural engineering student who has been volunteering to help displaced families in Adra northeast of Damascus, said she could not go out ahead of the holiday because the streets were crowded with people and traffic.

“This is Damascus’s first safe holiday in years and everyone wants to go out,” she said. “Volunteer groups in Adra have put up slides and swings for the children of displaced families to enjoy Eid Al-Fitr after the war has deprived them of a normal childhood.”

But for many other Syrians, the suffering and horror of the conflict continued. Sandara Al-Moussa, an architecture student at Damascus University, believes this holiday won’t be any different for many families.

“Even though the last chapter of war in Damascus has been closed, many families won’t be able to enjoy this Eid because the war has deprived them of their loved ones and of happiness,” she said.

“The joy of Eid shines from within,” she said. “When a person is content knowing his family and loved ones are safe, they definitely will enjoy a blissful Eid.”

She pointed out that the Eid all Syrians await is the day the war ends in the country.

Eid was also a time to remember that millions of Syrians remain displaced, many of whom are seeking asylum in other countries. 

In 2016, the UN identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance, more than 6 million of whom are internally displaced while almost 5 million are refugees outside the country. The war has killed more than 400,000 people, according to the last UN estimate in 2016 before the body said it was impossible to continue counting.

In March 2018, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported that more than 353,900 people,including 106,000 civilians, have died since the war erupted in March 2011.