2017 brings cautious optimism to Gaza Strip

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, right, shakes hands with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah inGazaCityonOct.3.(File/AFP)
Updated 23 December 2017

2017 brings cautious optimism to Gaza Strip

GAZA CITY: 2017 has been a momentous year for the 2 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip — an area of only 365 sq. km. They have witnessed a series of major political and social developments — in particular the Egypt-brokered reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, which promises much for the future but has yet to truly affect the grim reality on the ground.
Poverty and unemployment continue to rise; a reported 75 percent of the Palestinian population in Gaza received regular financial and food aid from UN organizations, the Palestinian government and local charities.
The early days of 2017 seemed to promise a reprieve from Gaza’s ongoing electricity crisis — with power available for just a few hours each day on a rolling blackout schedule — when Qatar and Turkey intervened to provide the necessary quantities of diesel to operate the Strip’s sole power plant.
Gazans’ joy was short-lived, however.
In March, Hamas — which has ruled Gaza since its split with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2007 — formed an administrative committee to handle Gaza’s governmental affairs, effectively establishing a substitute government in all but name.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responded by imposing severe sanctions, including a significant reduction in the quantity and variety of medicine sent by the Ministry of Health in Ramallah to the Gaza Strip, as well as a reduction in the number of medical referrals for patients to receive treatment outside the strip.
And in April, the PA informed Israel it would no longer pay for the electricity Israel supplies to Gaza, meaning Israel reduced the amount of electricity supplied by the Strip’s plant from 120 megawatts to 70, bringing the number of hours during which electricity was available down still further and putting health services at risk.
This step came, Reuters reported, after the PA had already “slashed,” by 30 percent, the salaries of “the civil servants who are one of the mainstays of Gaza’s economy,” shrinking Hamas’ tax revenue and threatening the livelihoods of Gaza’s store owners.
Abbas had likely been further angered by the return to Gaza of Yahya Sinwar — a Hamas leader who has spent decades in Israeli jails — as the Strip’s new prime minister.
Sinwar’s return, followed by that of Ismail Haniyeh in May as the newly elected head of the group’s political bureau, meant that Hamas’ leadership was based in Gaza for the first time in more than 20 years — during which time the group’s main decision makers were living in exile.
Despite Sinwar’s reputation for extremism, violence and exclusion, he proved to be a pragmatic leader, and immediately began to make conciliatory gestures to the Western-backed PA. In late April, Hamas indirectly declared its intention to terminate its membership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a number of other Arab countries — disassociating itself from a group regarded by many PA allies as an extremist organization.
In the same document declaring that intention, Hamas also expressed for the first time in its history a willingness to accept an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders — thereby including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — having previously insisted that Palestine should be marked by its historic borders.
On June 4, the 10th anniversary of the Fatah-Hamas divide, Sinwar landed in Cairo and took the first steps toward a reconciliation with Fatah, with the help of Mohammed Dahlan — head of the newly formed Fatah Reformist and Democratic Party — and Egyptian authorities.
In September, Hamas announced the dissolution of the Gaza administrative committee, paving the way for talks with Abbas.
By Oct. 2, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah was making a “historic visit” to Gaza accompanied by various ministers, to officially assume control of the Strip’s administrative affairs. It was a hugely significant moment, promising a unified Palestine once again.
On Nov. 1, as part of the Cairo agreement, Hamas also handed over control of the three crucial Gaza Strip border crossings: Rafah, the gateway to Egypt; and the Israeli border exits Karam Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom) and Beit Hanoun (Erez).
Progress since has not been so smooth, however. While the official Palestinian government is once again operating in Gaza, there remain several stumbling blocks to full reconciliation, including the fate of around 50,000 employees hired by Hamas in Gaza; reforms of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is in charge of the stalled peace talks with Israel; and the logistics of presidential and legislative elections in Palestine.
However, such concerns (including missed deadlines for reconciliation conditions to be met) were overshadowed on Dec. 6 by US President Donald Trump’s announcement that America had formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that the US Embassy would be relocated to the Holy City.
Fighting quickly erupted along the Gaza-Israel border and has left many Gaza residents fearing an escalation into all-out war. And so, despite several moments of positivity, the year ended with the people of Gaza once again facing an uncertain future.

2017 milestones in Gaza

• Hamas established its Gaza administrative committee, sparking harsh reprisals from the Palestinian Authority.

• After 20 years of its leaders living in exile, the return of Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar to Gaza means Hamas’ figureheads are once again based in Palestine.

• Hamas cuts ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and accepts an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 borders.
• Hamas dissolved its Gaza administrative committee.

• Hamas and Fatah sign a new reconciliation agreement in Cairo, brokered by Egypt, and the PA assumes control of the Gaza Strip’s border crossings and ministries.

• US President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem announcement sparks violence between Gaza and Israel and fears of a fourth Israel-Palestine conflict.

Syrian refugees remain skeptical about return

Updated 8 min 49 sec ago

Syrian refugees remain skeptical about return

  • There are currently about 1 million Syrian refugee children of school age in the country
ANKARA: While Moscow and Damascus urge the repatriation of Syrian refugees based on improving living conditions in the country, their call seems largely unheard by Syrians who think that the conditions on the ground are not yet encouraging enough for them to return.
Just in November 2018, some 10,232 Syrians have been caught by Turkish border troops crossing illegally into Turkey.
Experts underline that the repatriation process should be carried out voluntarily and with consideration for the socio-economic, political and security risks during the restoration process of the country. Otherwise, it may be premature.
The Syrian regime recently set up a coordination committee for the repatriation of displaced Syrian nationals to their original cities and towns.
Moscow also prepared a plan in July for coordinating the return of Syrian refugees to safe areas in their homelands. The plan was based on the establishment of working groups with Amman and Beirut, with the presence of US and Russian officials.
The reopening of the Nassib border crossing between Syria and Jordan in mid-October has also encouraged Assad government to issue calls for the Syrian nationals to return home.
Following the seven-year-long civil war, about 5.6 million Syrians are believed to have fled abroad to neighboring countries, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, while some preferred to set off for a new life in Europe.
About 114,000 of them have been repatriated this year, according to data announced by Moscow.
The risk of facing maltreatment when they return to government-held areas also caused concern among Syrian refugee communities.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has announced that since October more than 700 returnees, mostly from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, have been arrested and 230 of them were detained in government-controlled parts of Syria.
Omar Kadkoy, a Syrian-origin researcher on refugee integration at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, thinks that conditions for repatriation aren’t ripe yet.
“Many Syrians link the return to political change, but status quo has the upper hand. Plus the risk of being drafted to military, the non-functioning economy, and the lack of safety despite all the recent developments create unappealing conditions for return,” he told Arab News.
To encourage the return of Syrians, Assad regime has recently offered an amnesty for army deserters who will allegedly not be punished but will still have to serve the mandatory two years of military service.
However, those who joined opposition groups against regime forces are exempted from the amnesty, sparking concerns that it aims to attract only Assad supporters home.
According to Kadkoy, who has been living in Ankara for four years, the tempo of life is faster and harder in Turkey, but better compared to where Syrians come from and Syrians are getting used to this complex environment.
“This means they’re settling down after seven years and building their future: Kids in schools and universities, parents filling different layers of the labor market, and flourishing businesses,” he noted.
Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkey established 151 new companies in October mainly in the wholesale sector. Concentrating their activities in Istanbul, they invested about 34 million Turkish liras (about $6.3 million) and opened employment opportunities to many.
On the other hand, thousands of Turkish families reportedly began filing requests to adopt orphan Syrian children in Turkey. There are currently about 1 million Syrian refugee children of school age in the country.
According to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, there are three major factors preventing many Syrian refugees from feeling that it is safe for them to return home.
“First, the Assad government is continuing to seize and demolish homes in areas that had been held by anti-government forces, meaning that for many Syrian refugees there is no home to return to,” Roth told Arab News.
Second, Syrian prisons remain full of people vulnerable to torture and execution.
“Few will want to return home if they face a serious risk of detention,” Roth noted, adding that the Assad government has not accounted for the thousands who have “disappeared” in its prisons, many of whom have been killed or died due to horrible treatment.
Roth also said that there has been no accountability whatsoever for the Assad government’s deliberate strategy of bombing or besieging and starving civilian areas.
“Few will have any confidence that such atrocities will not resume if there has been no justice for the senior officials who directed them,” he added.
Ammar Hamou, a Jordan-based Syrian journalist, thinks that although Syria and Russia are trying to send assurances to Syrian refugees to encourage them to return, in fact the policy of the Syrian regime is contrary to official statements.
“The country is still in the grip of security, arrests are present, and reserve recruitment exists. One of my friends is a refugee in Jordan. He visited Syria two weeks ago, and when he decided to return he was surprised that he was wanted for military service,” he told Arab News.