West faces issue of dealing with Hamas

This article is more than 12 months old

While Islamist movement will hand over Gaza, there is no indication it will hand over its weapons

A landmark Palestinian unity deal poses a dilemma for the international community if it succeeds: how to deal with Hamas, Israel's long-time foe.

Under the Egyptian-brokered agreement, the Islamist movement Hamas will by Dec 1 hand over Gaza to the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority (PA), which is based in the West Bank.

The two sides and other factions will also seek to form a unity government, while Hamas could eventually join the Palestine Liberation Organisation - Israel's primary negotiating partner in peace talks.

There was no indication that Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel since 2008, would disband its vast military wing.

Western diplomats simultaneously welcomed the potential end to the decade-long split and expressed concern about Hamas joining the official Palestinian government.

The United States, Israel and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organisation.

The deal signed in Cairo on Thursday could also complicate US President Donald Trump's plan to restart frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Israel said the agreement made negotiations harder, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accusing the PA of "reconciling with mass murderers".

But Western diplomats believe there are workarounds that could enable them to continue working with a government that included Hamas members.

"It is difficult to imagine Hamas giving up violence overnight," one said on condition of anonymity. "But a compromise might be possible to allow us to work with the government even with Hamas backing."

The United Nations, Arab League and Western countries welcomed Thursday's reconciliation plan, with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres saying it could help ease Gaza's suffering.

Hamas has controlled the enclave since 2007, when it seized Gaza from the PA in a violent showdown. Since then Gaza has seen a growing humanitarian crisis, with the UN warning it is becoming "unlivable".

Israel has maintained a crippling blockade for a decade, while Egypt has also sealed its border in recent years.

Handing over Gaza's government to the PA could help loosen the blockades and unlock massive international funding to develop crippled infrastructure.

But Hamas officials have rejected giving up their weapons.

After the deal was signed, Israel said any Palestinian government must commit to the so-called principles of the international Quartet on Middle East peace.

These expressly demand recognition of Israel and renouncing violence as a tactic.

Hamas has done neither.

US law prohibits material support or resources for designated terrorist organisations, potentially complicating funding for a Hamas-backed Palestinian government.

The US is one of the largest donors to the Palestinian government, providing 265 million shekels (S$102 million) in budget support between January and August this year, according to the finance ministry.

But Western diplomats said there are ways in which they could support the government even if Hamas were part of it.

Under one plan, individual ministers would renounce their membership of Hamas and commit to the Quartet principles, even if the party did not.

"I don't know if we would have direct meetings with those specific ministers, but we could work with the government in general," said another diplomat.

But Mr Alan Baker, a former Israeli ambassador, said such an agreement would be rejected by the Jewish state unless Hamas disarmed.

For now, all sides have said it is still too early to know how the agreement will play out. - AFP

EGYPTISRAELunited states