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November 22, 2017

Hamas hands over border crossings to Palestinian Authority

Hamas hands over border crossings to Palestinian Authority
'Portraits of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas hang at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on November 1, 2017' - By: AFP SAID KHATIB

'A member of the Palestinian Authority (R) shakes hands with Hamas security men at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt after Hamas handed control of the crossing to the Palestinian Authority, in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 1, 2017' AFP / SAID KHATIB
"'A member of the Palestinian Authority (R) shakes hands with Hamas security men at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt after Hamas handed control of the crossing to the Palestinian Authority, in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 1, 2017'"

Rafah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Hamas handed over control of the Gaza Strip's borders with Egypt and Israel to the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday in the first key test of a landmark reconciliation accord agreed last month.

The handover signalled that Islamist movement Hamas remained firmly committed to a deal that would eventually see it give up full control of the Gaza Strip and bring an end to a 10-year rift with rivals Fatah.

It not only handed over control of the crossings, but also completely dismantled its own checkpoint along the border with Israel, leaving only the one operated by the Palestinian Authority there, with trucks carting away furniture and material.

A ceremony was held to formalise the handover at the Rafah border with Egypt.

"There is no yellow and green. All our Palestinian people are under the Palestinian flag," said Mufeed al-Husayna, a Palestinian Authority minister, referring to the flag colours of the political parties that signed last month's reconciliation deal.

Speaking at the Rafah ceremony, Husayna said: "We began today, under the directive of the prime minister (Rami Hamdallah), to exercise our duties by receiving all the crossings."

Palestinian and Egyptian flags were flying at the Rafah ceremony, with large pictures of Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas and Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

At a separate checkpoint with Israel, an AFP photographer saw Hamas installations being dismantled and carted away. Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials were also there overseeing the handover.

Hisham Adwan, director of information at the Hamas crossings authority, told AFP that Palestinian Authority employees would have full control of the borders.

Under an Egyptian-brokered deal agreed on October 12, the Palestinian Authority is due to resume full control of the strip by December 1, with the borders the first test.

'Palestinians have their IDs checked at a passport control station held by the Palestinian Authority at the northern entrance of the Gaza Strip just after the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing, on November 1, 2017 in Beit Hanun' AFP / MAHMUD HAMS
"'Palestinians have their IDs checked at a passport control station held by the Palestinian Authority at the northern entrance of the Gaza Strip just after the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing, on November 1, 2017 in Beit Hanun'"

The agreement set November 1 as the deadline for handing over control of the borders.

Worsening conditions

Many issues remain to be resolved, however, particularly the fate of Hamas's 25,000-strong armed wing.

Israel, which has fought three wars with militants in Gaza since 2008, has said it will not deal with any Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas unless the Islamist movement disarms and recognises the country, among other demands.

The United States has also called on Hamas to disarm and recognise Israel.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007, when the Islamists seized control in a near civil war with Abbas's Fatah, based in the occupied West Bank.

Israel has maintained a blockade on Gaza for a decade, citing the need to control Hamas and stop it from obtaining weapons or materials that could be used to make them.

Egypt has largely closed its border as well. The Rafah crossing was not open on Wednesday despite the official handover, though Hamas is hoping it will be in the coming days or weeks.

The Gaza Strip's two million residents suffer from worsening humanitarian conditions, with only a few hours of power a day and a lack of clean water.

The reconciliation agreement has raised hopes that a more regular opening of the Egyptian border could ease humanitarian suffering.

'Positive momentum'

"The return of the crossings should facilitate the lifting of the closures, while addressing Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and unlock increased international support for Gaza's reconstruction, growth, stability and prosperity," Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said in a statement.

"The positive momentum should be maintained and the Palestinian government must be fully empowered to function in Gaza."

Israel's government had not yet responded, but a statement from the Israeli body responsible for affairs in the Palestinian territories said they would meet with PA officials in the coming days to discuss the new situation.

Multiple previous pushes for reconciliation have collapsed and an incident this week threatened to undermine the latest attempt.

On Monday, seven Palestinian militants were killed when Israel said it blew up a tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into its territory intended for attacks.

The incident raised fears the timetable could be delayed, but both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas stressed they were committed to the agreement.

Officials from both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas accused Israel of trying to disrupt the deal. Israel's army said it was forced to act after its sovereignty was breached.

In another step in the reconciliation process, all major Palestinian factions are due to meet in Cairo later this month to discuss the formation of a unity government.

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