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Middle East

Palestinian rivals Fatah and Hamas to hold talks

Reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas have failed over the past ten years. With new talks starting, many Palestinians are hopeful that the two sides will turn their focus to improving people's lives.

Sitting in his garden in Gaza City, Yasser al Kurdi hopes for a change. "There is no other way, they have to make the reconciliation work this time," the former police officer says. For the past decade, he has not been able to work. His job was filled by another policeman, hired by the Hamas administration.

After Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, the Palestinian Authority, which ended up in Ramallah, ordered its Gaza employees to stay home and not work in Hamas-run institutions. They still received a full salary. But what started out as a temporary move has now been in place for ten years.

With the new Egyptian-brokered attempt at reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas about to get underway, huge challenges await the return of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and his ministers to the Gaza Strip on Monday. One of the major issues will be merging government institutions in Gaza and the West Bank.

Read more: 'Palestinians want reconciliation' between Fatah and Hamas

"People are tired and exhausted after ten years of siege and division," says Mkhaimer Abu Saada, political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza. "They are not going to settle for symbolic moves — they want the government to start work on the most pressing issues immediately, such as sorting out the problem with electricity. But of course, long term political issues also need to be addressed."

Hamas dissolves administrative committee

Two weeks ago, Hamas announced that it had dissolved its "administrative committee" which had run public affairs in the Gaza Strip since May this year. After intense Egyptian mediation, it also announced its willingness to hold general elections and called for a dialogue with its rival Fatah, which for the most part runs the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank.

Hamas established the administrative committee to fill what it described as a void caused by the PA's neglect of its duties in Gaza. The PA in Ramallah quickly denounced this step, effectively considering it a move to install a 'shadow government.'

In recent months, Abbas has sought to put further pressure on Islamist Hamas by further reducing the already meager power supply to the Gaza Strip. In the middle of sweltering summer heat, people were suddenly left with no more than 4 to 5 hours of electricity per day.

Read more: Blackout in Gaza

Gaza's raw sewage flows into the Mediterranean

The electricity shortage in Gaza means that raw sewage spills into the Mediterranean

Crucial role of Hamas' military wing

Officials in Ramallah welcomed Hamas' announcement. "We await the first steps on the ground. We want to see Mr. Hamdallah received by Hamas with the door to all the ministries opened," says Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

In recent days, Hamas' new chief in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has given interviews stressing that this time he intends to implement a reconciliation process and will not tolerate "anyone who tries to sabotage it."

However, experts remain sceptical as to whether the outlook of both parties can be aligned. "The word 'reconciliation' is sometimes understood by Hamas in one way, and the West Bank in another way," says Sami Abdel-Shafi, an independent political consultant in Gaza City. "In the West Bank some people are talking about a complete governmental takeover in Gaza, whereas within Hamas, the language being used is all about political power sharing."

One of the main concerns will be the issue of security and border control, as well as the role of Hamas' military wing, the Qassam Brigades. They have already made it clear that they do not intend to lay down their arms and will remain active. There is also the strategic issue of both parties finding a common political program, together with other smaller Palestinian factions.

Graffiti in Gaza

After Hamas and Fatah agreed to talks, this graffiti appeared in Gaza City: it says 'division'

Many reconciliation attempts have failed

Since Hamas took over Gaza after violent clashes in 2007, there have been several failed attempts at reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. The last such attempt was the agreement signed by both parties in Gaza in April 2014, just three months before a deadly war broke out between Hamas and Israel.

On Gaza City's busy Omar al Mukhtar Boulevard, people are cautiously optimistic."The government in Ramallah is certainly most welcome, but we also know that files have piled up over the past 11 years that need to be dealt with and I don't think they have a magic stick to resolve everything overnight," says Raed Issa.

Another passerby, Nidal Hammad, a young engineer, has a very clear idea what a government of national unity should deal with first: "I want the government to help people, to create work opportunities and certainly more jobs."

With unemployment at an estimated 44 percent, most young people have little prospect of finding a full time job and starting an independent life. And looking for a job outside Gaza is almost impossible, given that the Gaza Strip has been sealed off by Israel and Egypt for over a decade. 

Most people hope that as part of the reconciliation plan, the border crossing in Rafah will be opened on a more regular basis. This is Gaza's only pathway to Egypt and a much needed opening to the outside world. Until now, the passage has only opened for two or three days per month, with thousands of people on a waiting list to leave the Gaza Strip.

Gaza strip

Egyptian security forces stand guard at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip

In recent months, strained relations between Egypt and Hamas have somewhat improved, and Egypt has agreed to renovate the passenger terminal at Rafah in return for Hamas' agreement to boost security along the border between Gaza and Egypt. But it is still unclear whether Egypt will allow the border crossing to opened more frequently.

"We really hope that there will be some clear and precise measures to improve our daily life," says Hdaya Shamoun, a young Palestinian woman working for a nongovernmental organization. But with all the unknowns, she says, people in Gaza remain deeply sceptical about whether the symbolic ceremonies will lead to any changes on the ground this time around.

"I would like to believe that this time it will work out," says Ms. Shamoun. "It really feels like this is the last chance."

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