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October 11, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s domestic security agency said Wednesday it detained six people in Crimea accused of involvement in an extremist organization, a move described by one of the suspects’ lawyer as part of Moscow’s crackdown on the Crimean Tatars.

Emil Kurbedinov, a lawyer for one of the six detainees, said that police also rounded up nine other Crimean Tatars who protested the detentions in the Crimean town of Bakhchisarai. The Federal Security Service or FSB, the main KGB successor agency, said it has stopped the activities of a local cell of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamist group which Russia and several other ex-Soviet nations banned as a “terrorist” organization.

The FSB said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that it has opened a criminal probe against six people suspected of involvement in the group. Kurbedinov, a lawyer for Suleiman Asanov, whom the FSB accused of organizing the cell, described the charges as “absurd.” He said all six detainees were local Crimean Tatar activists who opposed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

Russia has faced criticism for infringing on the ethnic group’s rights since the annexation. “It’s yet another attempt to intimidate people with ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ labels,” Kurbedinov said by phone from Bakhchisarai.

Kurbedinov said nine other Crimean Tatars who were protesting the detentions were taken into custody for holding an unsanctioned demonstration and were set to face court hearings Thursday. Zair Smedlyayev, who heads an association of Crimean Tatars, also said the move was part of a continuing crackdown on the Turkic ethnic group.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was visiting the Ukrainian capital, said Turkey was monitoring the situation of Crimean Tatars and thanked Ukraine for defending their rights.

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October 06, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Al-Qaida-linked fighters on Friday attacked a key central Syrian village at the crossroads between areas under government control and those controlled by insurgent groups, opposition activists said.

In eastern Syria, meanwhile, 15 civilians, including children, were killed when a missile slammed into a government-held neighborhood in the city of Deir el-Zour on Thursday evening. The attack on the village of Abu Dali in central Hama province was led by al-Qaida-linked Hay’at Tahrir al Sham — Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee and also known as HTS. It came two weeks after insurgents attacked a nearby area where three Russian soldiers were wounded.

Earlier this week, Russia’s military claimed the leader of the al-Qaida-linked group was wounded in a Russian airstrike and had fallen into a coma. The military offered no evidence on the purported condition of Abu Mohammed al-Golani.

The al-Qaida-linked group subsequently denied al-Golani was hurt, insisting he is in excellent health and going about his duties as usual. Al-Qaida-linked fighters have been gaining more influence in the northwestern province of Idlib and northern parts of Hama province where they have launched attacks on rival militant groups, as well as areas controlled by the government.

The village of Abu Dali had been spared much of the violence and had functioned as a local business hub between rebel-run areas and those under President Bashar Assad’s forces. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said al-Qaida fighters captured several village tribesmen following the attack in the early hours of Friday. The HTS-linked Ibaa news agency did not mention the attack but said Russian warplanes were bombing areas the group controls in northern Syria.

Violence in eastern Syria has escalated significantly in recent weeks as Syrian troops with the help of Russian air cover are closing in on Mayadeen, a new Islamic State group stronghold after IS came under attacks in the cities of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said troops are marching south from Deir el-Zour toward Mayadeen under the cover of airstrikes. The DeirEzzor 24 monitoring group said the missile in the airstrike on Thursday evening that killed 15 had hit near a school in the Qusour neighborhood. Three children and three women were among those killed, the group said Friday, blaming IS for the attack. The school and a nearby residential building were destroyed.

The Observatory also reported the incident, putting the number of civilians killed at 13. Both the Observatory and DeirEzzor 24 also reported that an airstrike hit the village of Mehkan, just south of Mayadeen, and said it killed several families.

Syrian troops have broken a nearly three-year siege on parts of Deir el-Zour last month and are fighting to liberate from IS remaining parts of the city. In Russia, the military said one of its helicopters had made an emergency landing in Syria, but its crew was unhurt.

According to the Defense Ministry, the Mi-28 helicopter gunship landed in Hama province on Friday due to a technical malfunction. The two crewmen were not injured and were flown back to base. The ministry said the helicopter was not fired upon.

The ministry’s statement followed a claim by IS-linked Aamaq news agency, which said that a Russian helicopter was downed south of Shiekh Hilal village in Hama. Also on Friday, the Russian military accused the United States of turning a blind eye and effectively providing cover to the Islamic State group’s operations in an area in Syria that is under U.S. control.

The Defense Ministry’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said IS militants have used the area around the town of Tanf near Syria’s border with Jordan — where U.S. military instructors are also stationed — to launch attacks against the Syrian army.

The area has become a “black hole,” posing a threat to Syrian army’s offensive against the IS in eastern Der el-Zour province, he added. The Russian accusations likely reflect rising tensions as U.S.-backed Syrian forces and the Russian-backed Syrian army — both of which are battling IS — race for control of oil and gas-rich areas of eastern Syria.

Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

OCT. 2, 2017

AMMAN: In a remote, destitute displacement camp along Syria’s southeastern border with Jordan, thousands of residents were finalizing preparations last week to return home to central Homs province, fed up after years of life in the desert.

The departing residents were headed back home from the Rukban camp to Qaryatayn, a small town 160km to the northwest, nestled deep within regime territory in rural Homs province.

Some people in the camp had already sent their spouses and children back to Qaryatayn in recent weeks as living conditions in Rukban deteriorated. Someday, they planned to rejoin their loved ones in the relative safety of regime-held central Homs.

But late Friday night, Islamic State forces reportedly launched a surprise offensive and captured Qaryatayn from the Syrian regime. Virtually all communications from the town went down. On Sunday, IS released a statement online claiming their forces held “full control” over the town. Syrian state media did not report the attack.

For residents of Rukban who fled IS control of Qaryatayn two years ago, the recapture of the city came as “a shock.”

“Nobody was expecting IS to return,” Abu Ward, a 25-year-old Rukban resident who fled Qaryatayn with his family in 2015, told Syria Direct on Monday. “To be honest, it was a shock—I didn’t believe the news at first.”

Once a mixed town of Syrian Muslims and Christians reliant on agriculture and government jobs in Damascus, Qaryatayn first fell to the Islamic State in 2015. At the time, thousands of its roughly 14,000 residents fled south through Syria’s eastern desert to safety in Rukban.

Syrian regime forces recaptured Qaryatayn in 2016, but many residents who had already fled did not return for fear of arrest or forced military conscription at the hands of the authorities.

If confirmed, the capture of Qaryatayn is a rare victory for IS as the group’s forces suffer major losses in eastern Syria’s Raqqa and Deir e-Zor provinces, amid separate campaigns by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the regime to eradicate the group from its remaining territory.

The surprise advance also comes amid clashes between regime and IS forces 160 kilometers northeast of Qaryatayn in Sukhnah, a key waystation for regime forces on the eastern Deir e-Zor front.

‘No communication’

Today, Qaryatayn natives still in Rukban tell Syria Direct they have “no communication” with their family members back home, as the reported IS hold over the city reaches its third day. For them, the town is a virtual black hole.

The Qaryatayn Media Center, a Facebook news page based outside of the town, posted online that it was able to contact reporters inside on Monday. According to the page, clashes between regime forces and IS continue in the town’s south as civilians shelter inside. “Hundreds” of residents were arrested and later released by IS following the capture of the town, QMC reported.

Among Rukban residents with family now trapped back home in Qaryatayn is Abu Saleem, a 33-year-old father of four. He sent his wife and children home to Qaryatayn last month, after he felt life had returned to normal in the regime-held town. Abu Saleem stayed behind in Rukban because he feared arrest and conscription by regime forces.

Abu Saleem’s wife and children were among hundreds of Rukban residents who returned to Qaryatayn since August, after key supply routes to the desert camp were cut off by battles in the surrounding desert.

From his location in Rukban, Abu Saleem kept in touch with his family daily via voice messages sent online. “[My wife] told me she was doing fine, that the city was safe,” he told Syria Direct on Monday. “She had just registered the kids in school.”

“But on Friday evening, she sent me a voice message. There was gunfire, and she said she couldn’t go outside the house, that IS had returned to the city. My children were crying nearby.”

Abu Saleem has heard nothing from his wife and children since Friday, he says, after communication with them “was cut off.”

“I’m afraid for my family,” he said from Rukban. “I’m afraid IS could commit massacres, or that regime warplanes could bomb the city, which could lead—God forbid—to the death of my family.”

Abu Saleem isn’t alone. Abu Ward, the 25-year-old Rukban resident, also told Syria Direct he had no communication with family members who had recently returned to Qaryatayn.

Abu Ward’s brothers, nieces and elderly parents all left Rukban for their hometown about a month and a half ago, hoping for a more stable life outside of the camp. He kept in touch with his family via landline, he said, “because when IS captured Qaryatayn for the first time, they cut off cell phone coverage.”

But the last time Abu Ward heard anything substantial from his family was Friday evening, during a phone call.

“At 11:30pm, the landline cut off,” he told Syria Direct on Monday. “At the time, they seemed to be doing well—there were no signs of IS. Everything seemed normal.”

He was able to reach his family members in Qaryatayn “briefly” again on Monday, Abu Ward said, “but the line cut out again.”

“I couldn’t figure out how they were doing—just that there is great panic among residents of the town.”

Mohammad Ahmad a-Darbas al-Khalidi, Rukban’s current local council director, estimates some 100 families—hundreds of people—have returned from the camp to Qaryatayn since August. At the time, deteriorating food and medical supplies, as well as series of regime advances eastward along the Syrian-Jordanian border spurred camp residents to flee back home.

“We advised people against returning to Qaryatayn or other areas under regime control,” al-Khalidi told Syria Direct from the camp on Sunday.

Some 300 families were preparing to leave Qaryatayn just before news broke of the IS attack, he said. “They said that they preferred death to living in this camp.”

Today, Rukban resident Abu Saleem says all he feels is regret for sending his wife and young children home to Qaryatayn.

“My feelings are nearly killing me,” he said from inside encampment. “Regret for sending them by themselves, regret that I’m not with them, regret for being the one who made the decision for them to return.”

Source: Syria Direct.

Link: http://syriadirect.org/news/rare-islamic-state-victory-in-rural-homs-splits-displaced-families-apart/.

2017-09-20

RAQA – US-backed fighters have seized 90 percent of Raqa from the Islamic State group, a monitor said Wednesday, as they announced they were in the “final stages” of capturing the jihadists’ Syrian stronghold.

Under siege in the northern city for three months, IS is struggling to defend its one-time bastion under a barrage of air strikes by the US-led coalition battling the jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

“Because of the heavy coalition air strikes, IS withdrew from at least five key neighborhoods over the past 48 hours,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“This allowed the Syrian Democratic Forces to control 90 percent of the city.”

The SDF is an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces the coalition is backing in Syria with air strikes, equipment and advisers.

IS pulled out of the north of the city and abandoned its grain silos and mills, and was now confined to the city center, Abdel Rahman said.

The SDF said its forces had mounted a “surprise attack” on IS in the city’s north.

“We consider this the final stages of the Wrath of the Euphrates campaign, which is nearing its end,” the statement said.

IS seized Raqa in early 2014, transforming the city into the de facto Syrian capital of the “caliphate” it declared after taking control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.

It quickly became synonymous with the group’s most gruesome atrocities, including public beheadings, and IS is thought to have used the city to plan attacks abroad.

– ‘Not resist much longer’ –

The SDF spent months encircling the city before entering it in June and sealing off all access routes.

Abdel Rahman said the siege had worn down IS’s defensive capabilities.

“After hundreds of their fighters were killed in recent weeks, the remaining IS fighters will not be able to resist much longer in Raqa as their military equipment and basic necessities are dwindling,” he said.

Without food or medical equipment, IS was unable to treat its own wounded and had retreated to the city center, which it considered “the most secure,” he said.

But the battle for the 10 percent of the city still held by IS will likely be tough, as the jihadists had heavily mined the area, Abdel Rahman said.

IS has used mines, snipers, car bombs, and weaponised drones against the SDF offensive.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting in recent months. Estimates of the number still inside the city range from fewer than 10,000 to as many as 25,000.

“We will continue the campaign until we achieve our aim,” Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, the SDF’s spokeswoman for the Raqa offensive, said.

Correspondents on Tuesday saw a military convoy of US-made vehicles, bulldozers, and arms being transported through northeastern Syria.

Syria’s conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against President Bashar al-Assad, but has since evolved into a complex, multi-front war.

More than 330,000 people have been killed and millions have been forced to flee their homes.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84948.

October 6, 2017

Some 29 individuals from around the world are wanted over their alleged involvement in terrorist activities that have led to the death of US citizens, America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has announced. The names are included in the FBI’s latest “most wanted” list.

Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth reported yesterday that the list includes four Palestinians, most notably the Secretary General of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, Ramadan Shallah. The Washington DC-based bureau is offering a $5 million reward to anyone who hands over Shallah, who is said to be responsible for “a series of murder, bombing, extortion and money laundering activities.”

The FBI list also includes 37-year old Palestinian prisoner Ahlam Al-Tamimi, who was accused of carrying out the so-called Sbarro restaurant suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 2001, as well as the killing of a number of Israeli settlers and two US citizens. The Palestinian leader and co-founder of the Islamic Jihad movement, Abdel Aziz Odeh, 67, is another of the FBI’s “most wanted”.

Seventy-one year old Hussein Al-Amri, who was born in Jaffa, is wanted by the FBI for his alleged participation in the Pan American Airline bombing on 11 August 1982. The bureau has also placed a $5 million reward for any information on his whereabouts.

At the top of the list of “most wanted” individuals is Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda. The FBI reward for his capture stands at £25 million.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171006-four-palestinians-on-fbis-most-wanted-list/.

October 5, 2017

Ramallah– Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah presented on Wednesday highlights of his government’s economic reform plan in the Gaza Strip.

“We have plans ready for action,” said Hamdallah, who remained in Gaza with a group of ministers following a Cabinet session on Tuesday.

“We hope we can invest in industrial areas and gas fields,” he stated, addressing a group of Gazan businessmen.

The prime minister was referring to his intention to reproduce the experience of the West Bank in the establishment of large industrial zones, which is still in its early stages, and to start extracting gas from the natural gas field off the coast of Gaza, which was discovered in 1998.

The Authority highlighted an initial agreement with foreign companies for gas extraction, hoping that the Gaza gas field would be one of the foundations of the Palestinian economy.

In addition, Hamdallah said that his government was looking to improve the business and investment environment in Gaza, to work on the land settlement and water purification projects and to complete infrastructure and sanitation plans.

The economic file will be one of the most important issues that the Palestinian government will have to deal with, in the wake of the high rates of unemployment and poverty, and the significant and dangerous economic decline witnessed over the last period.

According to a recent study, the Gaza Strip incurred losses worth $15 billion over the past ten years.

Hamdallah stressed that his government would work to improve the economic situation, despite the decline of foreign aid by more than 70 percent, the delivery of only 35.5 percent of aid, and with many countries not fulfilling their commitments to reconstruction in Gaza.

The prime minister, however, linked the ability of his government to implement its economic plans with the agreement between Fatah and Hamas on the reconciliation files in Cairo.

“We hope that reconciliation will be a lever for our efforts in this context, which will contribute to improving our economy and the living conditions of citizens,” he said.

Two delegations from Fatah and Hamas are expected to arrive next Monday in Cairo, upon an invitation by Egyptian Intelligence Chief Khalid Fawzi.

On Tuesday, Hamdallah presided over a Cabinet meeting in the Gaza Strip, in a move towards reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas parties.

Source: Asharq al-Awsat.

Link: https://english.aawsat.com/kifah-ziboun/news-middle-east/palestinian-government-sets-economic-reform-plan-gaza-strip.

GAZA CITY, Palestine

October 3, 2017

The Palestinian cabinet met in Gaza on Tuesday for the first time since 2014 in a further step towards the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority retaking control of the territory.

The meeting of the Fatah-led government, which is based in the occupied West Bank, comes as part of moves to end a decade-long split between the PA and the Hamas movement, which runs Gaza.

In an opening speech, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah renewed his pledge to end the rift.

“We are here to turn the page on division, restore the national project to its correct direction and establish the (Palestinian) state,” he said.

It was the first meeting of the cabinet in Gaza since November 2014, and comes a day after Hamdallah entered the territory for the first time since a unity government collapsed in June 2015.

On Monday, he met with senior Hamas figures, including leader Ismail Haniya.

After Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, government spokesman Yusuf Al Mahmud said ministers discussed the humanitarian situation in Gaza. No Hamas officials took part.

Mahmud warned that a full reconciliation deal would take time.

“The government does not have a magic wand,” he told reporters.

More than two million people live in impoverished Gaza, which has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt for years.

The sides will hold further talks next week in the Egyptian capital Cairo.

Punitive measures imposed by the PA against Hamas, including cutting electricity payments for Gaza, would remain in place pending the result of those talks, Mahmoud added.

Hamas called for the measures to be ended immediately as a show of good will.

“Our people look forward to practical steps to ease their suffering,” a statement said.

A main sticking point between the parties is whether tens of thousands of Hamas employees will be added to the PA’s already bloated government payroll. It is also unclear if Hamas will allow its militants to be replaced by PA security forces, especially at Gaza’s border crossings to Egypt.

Hamas has controlled Gaza since seizing it from the PA in a near civil war in 2007 after Hamas swept 2006 legislative polls that were ultimately rejected by Fatah, Israel and the international community. So far, multiple previous reconciliation attempts have failed.

Last month, Hamas announced they were willing to cede civilian control to the PA, following Egyptian pressure.

The United States and the European Union blacklist Hamas as a terrorist organization, complicating the formation of any potential unity government.

The head of Egyptian intelligence Khaled Fawzi is to visit Gaza later on Tuesday and meet with Hamas and PA officials, including Haniya.

‘Carefully optimistic’

Tuesday’s cabinet session took place at the official Gaza residence of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the cabinet office, hung with portraits of Abbas and historic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Huge posters of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who brokered the reconciliation effort, were also featured outside Abbas’ residence.

Abbas himself remained in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Hamas security were on the roof of the building, while Palestinian Authority agents were deployed inside, an AFP correspondent reported.

“Today we are faced with a historic revival in which we are grappling with our wounds and elevating our unity,” Hamdallah said, reaffirming that there would be no Palestinian state without Gaza.

U.N. Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov said on Monday that he was “carefully optimistic” about the reconciliation talks.

“If the region stays engaged, if Egypt’s role continues and if the political parties themselves continue to show the willingness they are currently showing to work with us on this process, then it can succeed,” he told AFP.

In an interview on Monday night Abbas said that while the two sides “might have wronged each other and cursed each other, today we enter a new phase.”

A key issue is Hamas’s powerful military wing that has fought three wars with Israel since 2008. Hamas officials reject the possibility of dissolving it.

Abbas told Egypt’s CBC that there will be “one state, one system, one law and one weapon” — in an apparent reference to Hamas’s military wing.

He also warned Hamas could not “copy or clone Hezbollah’s experience in Lebanon,” referring to a situation where an independent armed group exerts major influence on national politics.

The United States cautiously welcomed Hamdallah’s visit, but White House special envoy Jason Greenblatt warned any Palestinian government “must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the State of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties and peaceful negotiations.”

The Palestinian Authority has signed peace deals with Israel, but Hamas was not party to them and does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Source: Daily Sabah.

Link: https://www.dailysabah.com/mideast/2017/10/03/palestinian-cabinet-convenes-in-gaza-for-first-time-since-2014-amid-fatah-hamas-unity-talks.

October 02, 2017

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Palestinian prime minister traveled Monday to the Gaza Strip to launch an ambitious reconciliation effort with the rival Hamas militant group, receiving a hero’s welcome from thousands of people as the sides moved to end a bitter 10-year rift.

Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, representing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, was joined by dozens of top officials, aides and security men on the trip from the West Bank through Israel and into Gaza to meet with the Hamas officials. It is by far the most ambitious attempt at reconciliation since Hamas seized power of the coastal strip in 2007.

The sides exchanged smiles, handshakes and pleasantries — a reflection of the changed climate that has ripened conditions for reconciliation after other failed attempts. But difficult negotiations lie ahead, and key sticking points, particularly who will control Hamas’ vast weapons arsenal, could easily derail the effort.

On Monday, at least, the two sides put aside their differences. Well-wishers surrounded Hamdallah’s car as it entered Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Erez border crossing, and dozens of Palestinian youths gathered alongside a barbed-wire fence to glimpse the welcoming ceremony. Some waved Palestinian or yellow Fatah flags, and many chanted Hamdallah’s name.

“The only way to statehood is through unity,” Hamdallah told the crowd of about 2,000. “We are coming to Gaza again to deepen the reconciliation and end the split.” Conditions in Gaza have deteriorated greatly in a decade of Hamas rule, and the feeling of hope by desperate residents was palpable Monday.

Thousands lined the streets to watch Hamdallah’s 30-vehicle convoy. The crowd forced the delegation to delay its first meeting at the home of the top Fatah official in Gaza and instead take a break at a beachside hotel.

Dozens of vehicles later returned to the Shejayeh neighborhood for the lunch. Hamas’ top leaders, Ismail Haniyeh and Yehiyeh Sinwar, said next to Hamdallah and West Bank security chief Majed Faraj. “This is a day of joy,” said Shaima Ahmed, 28, a women’s rights activist who covered her shoulders with a Palestinian kaffiyeh. “Yes it’s difficult and not easy to go forward, but we only have to be optimistic this time.”

Hamas ousted the Fatah-led forces of the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in the summer of 2007, leaving the Palestinians torn between rival governments on opposite sides of Israel. Hamas has ruled Gaza, while Abbas’ party has controlled autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Abbas seeks both territories, along with east Jerusalem, for a Palestinian state, and the division is a major obstacle to any possible peace deal. Israel captured all three areas in the 1967 Mideast war, although it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

While previous reconciliation attempts have failed, years of international isolation and steadily worsening conditions in Gaza have pushed Hamas toward compromise. In a significant concession, Hamas has offered to turn over all governing responsibilities to Hamdallah. His ministers are expected to begin taking over government ministries Tuesday, with negotiations in Cairo on more difficult issues in the coming weeks.

Hamdallah said the reconstruction of Gaza, which is still recovering from a 2014 war with Israel, would be a priority. “We realize that the road is still long and hard. We will be faced with obstacles and challenges, but our people are able to rise again from among destruction and suffering,” he said.

Several factors appear to be working in favor of reconciliation. Under Hamas’ watch, Gaza has fallen deeper into poverty, battered by a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade and three devastating wars with Israel. Unemployment is estimated at over 40 percent, Gaza’s 2 million residents are virtually barred from traveling abroad, and residents have electricity for only a few hours a day.

Sinwar, Hamas’ newly elected leader, has expressed willingness to yield most power to Abbas, preferring to return to his group’s roots as an armed “resistance” movement battling Israel. The group’s leadership is based entirely in Gaza, meaning they no longer have to consult with exiled leaders spread across the Arab world to make difficult decisions.

And perhaps most critically, Hamas has improved relations with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The former general took office after the military ousted then-President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, had close ties with Hamas, and el-Sissi has previously accused Hamas of cooperating with Islamic extremists in Egypt’s neighboring Sinai peninsula. But the sides have grown closer in recent months, with Hamas now providing security cooperation with Egypt and el-Sissi promising to ease the blockade.

Reflecting these improved ties, Egyptian envoys attended Monday’s ceremony, and posters of the Egyptian flag and el-Sissi were hoisted at major intersections. Egypt also maintains good ties with Israel and could potentially play an important role in selling a reconciliation deal to Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group.

Abbas also has much to gain. The 82-year-old Palestinian leader has said the rift with Gaza is his greatest regret. Regaining control of Gaza would help him burnish his legacy, especially after years of failure in peace efforts with Israel.

Still, many obstacles lie ahead. While Hamas is eager to give up its governing responsibilities, officials say the group will not give up its arsenal of thousands of rockets and mortars aimed at Israel.

Officials close to Abbas say he will not agree to allow Hamas to become like Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that dominates its country’s politics. The sides will have to find a formula that not only is acceptable to them but which Israel would be willing to tolerate.

Israel has demanded that Hamas renounce violence and recognize its right to exist as part of any reconciliation deal. It also remains unclear what will happen to Hamas’ 40,000 civil servants, who were hired after Abbas forced his employees in Gaza to resign after the Hamas takeover. In an area with few jobs, both sides will likely want their loyalists to receive salaries.

Fatah spokesman Osama Qawasmi said the sides are up to the task. “We believe these issues are difficult, but with our will and patience, we can resolve them,” he said. In signs of good spirits, a family named their child born in Gaza Monday after the visiting Palestinian prime minister, and the official TV station of Abbas’ government broadcast its main news bulletin from Gaza for the first time in a decade since the Hamas takeover.

Donald Trump’s Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt said in a statement the U.S. “welcomes efforts to create the conditions for the Palestinian Authority to fully assume its responsibilities in Gaza.” It added that “any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel,” and should also accept previous agreements between the parties.

There was no immediate comment from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

October 2, 2017

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah arrived in the Gaza Strip on Monday in what is seen as a major step towards ending the decade-long rift between Fatah and Hamas, which seized control of the coastal strip in 2007.

Hamdallah drove through the Israeli Erez crossing, heading a large delegation of Fatah officials from the West Bank trying to end the dispute.

Hamas announced last week that it was handing over administrative control of the Gaza Strip to a unity government headed by Hamdallah, but the movement’s armed wing remains the dominant power in the enclave of two million people.

Hamas’s reversal was the most significant step toward elusive Palestinian unity since the government was formed in 2014. It failed to function in Gaza because of disputes between Hamas and Fatah over its responsibilities.

Analysts said narrowing internal divisions could help Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas counter Israel’s argument that it has no negotiating partner for peace.

A Hamas police honor guard and hundreds of Palestinians, many of them waving Palestinian flags, welcomed Hamdallah outside the Hamas-controlled checkpoint, down the road from the Erez crossing.

“It is a day of Eid, a national holiday,” said Abdel-Majid Ali, 46. “We hope this time reconciliation is for real.”

Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel and the West, made its dramatic reversal toward unity last month, disbanding its Gaza shadow government, after Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates imposed an economic boycott on its main donor, Qatar, over support of terrorism.

Source: Asharq al-Awsat.

Link: https://english.aawsat.com/asharq-al-awsat-english/news-middle-east/palestinian-pm-arrives-gaza-first-step-reconciliation.

September 17, 2017

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement on Sunday welcomed a pledge by its Hamas rival to accept key conditions for ending a decade-old Palestinian political and territorial split, but said it wants to see vows implemented before making the next move.

Repeated attempts at reconciliation have failed since the militant Hamas drove forces loyal to Abbas from the Gaza Strip in 2007, a year after defeating Fatah in parliament elections. The takeover led to rival governments, with Hamas controlling Gaza and Abbas in charge of autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Earlier Sunday, Hamas announced that it has accepted key Abbas demands for ending the split. This includes holding general elections in the West Bank and Gaza, dissolving a contentious Gaza administrative committee and allowing an Abbas-led “unity government,” formed in 2014 but until now unable to start operating in Gaza, to finally assume responsibility there.

The announcement came after separate talks by Hamas and Fatah delegations with Egyptian intelligence officials in Cairo in recent days. Egypt relayed Fatah demands to Hamas that as a first step, it must dissolve the administrative committee, its de facto government in Gaza, and allow the unity government to take charge.

“We accepted that as a sign of our good will toward reconciliation,” Hamas official Hussam Badran told The Associated Press. “The administrative committee is now dissolved and the government can come to Gaza today to assume its responsibilities and duties,” he said.

Azzam al-Ahmed, a Fatah participant in the talks, said Hamas and Fatah agreed to meet in Cairo within 10 days, during which time the national unity government should assume its responsibility in Gaza.

Mahmoud Aloul, another Fatah official, told the Voice of Palestine radio that the news from Cairo is encouraging, but that “we want to see that happening on the ground before we move to the next step.”

Hamas has been greatly weakened by an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, three wars with Israel and international isolation. Gaza’s economy is in tatters and residents of the territory have electricity for only a few hours a day. In recent months, Abbas has stepped up financial pressure on Hamas, including by scaling back electricity payments to Gaza, to force his rivals to cede ground.

Still, there were no guarantees that this deal would succeed where others failed. 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.

A key sticking point in the past was Hamas’ refusal to place its security forces in Gaza under the control of an Abbas-led unity government. It also was not clear how Egypt’s latest effort aligns with its previous tacit support for a separate Gaza power-sharing deal between Hamas and Mohammed Dahlan, an exiled former Abbas aide-turned-rival.