Something happened in Gaza City this week which was almost entirely missed by the world’s media. It was the first cabinet meeting of the Palestinian “unity” government to take place in the stricken coastal enclave.
The symbolism of it, out of context, could have been stunning.
But in context, it was appallingly cynical.
It could have been stunning for the hope it offered. Anyone who hopes Israel one day lives in peace also hopes the Palestinians one day elect a government worthy of the name.
To be worthy, it needs to be representative, and to be representative, it needs to carry both Gaza and the West Bank, so the first cabinet meeting of the Palestinian “unity” government on Gazan soil, could have symbolised some kind of sacred breakthrough.
But here comes the context.
The much-hyped meeting of Palestinian minds came just three days before an international pledging conference in Cairo, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wanting $4 billion to rebuild Gaza.
Judging by the images, he needs it.
But international donors and senior Israeli politicians have tied Gaza’s future to Fatah’s involvement in governing the Strip.
Without it, Gaza’s militant rulers are out of friends and out of money.
For Hamas, the “unity government” was the last throw of the dice.
For Abbas, the reflected glory was just the thing his sagging popularity ratings needed.
Everyone agreed. And everyone knows it’s built on sand.
Earlier versions of these reconciliation councils have all failed, but this latest incarnation of Palestinian love has not yet had time to.
No sooner had the dice been thrown then all hell broke loose.
Three boys were kidnapped, the IDF launched a frantic search, whole cities were put under curfew and hundreds were arrested without charge in emergency measures.
Predictably, the mass IDF round-up of Hamas members in the West Bank was a step too far for the group’s Gaza-based leaders, so Hamas sent its rockets and Israel hit back.
The rest is history.
During the conflict, Abbas kept a low profile, as he had done during the earlier Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike.
This was especially true in the first few days, during the hunt for the boys, and when his wife was undergoing surgery in Israel. This just increased the widespread Palestinian suspicion that Abbas was a stooge. It also fed the idea that the only Palestinians fighting back were the masked teenagers flying the green flag of militant Islam.
Many felt the old men of Ramallah were just hiding behind their desks.
“People here aren’t paying any attention to Abbas,” says Adnan Abu Amer, head of arts and humanities at Gaza’s Ummah University.
“He needs the unity government, backed by Hamas, to market himself as the leader of the Palestinian people.”
Given that the hatred between the two factions has only grown, and given the iron grip Hamas has on the Strip, it was with excruciating insincerity that Gaza’s Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, said on Thursday: “This is the government of all of Palestine… This meeting strengthens Palestinian unity and the end of a division we have lived for years.”
It was painful to watch. This was first a photo op, second a cabinet meeting, and never the longed-for revision of the way the Palestinian leadership sees the struggle for an independent homeland.
Fatah men stood in front of the cameras, to reassure donors that it would lead reconstruction efforts in a technocrat government, saying the government of which it was now part had “assumed immediate authority over Gaza” ahead of the pledging conference. Sure.
The most pressing problem Gaza’s rulers face is a public sector payroll crisis.
Thousands of civil servants have not been paid, largely because US pressure led Arab Bank to refuse to process a payment of hundreds of millions of dollars from Qatar.
With tens of thousands of homes damaged and no money coming in, the people of Gaza are increasingly desperate.
Many are risking their lives to flee. Dozens have already drowned crossing the Mediterranean in the last few weeks.
The cash can’t come soon enough. And like it or not, Gaza’s 1.8 million people are now reliant on Abbas for the material and goods they need.
There is no question that this sham marriage is the right move if it unleashes the donors’ dollars.
We’re yet to see the details, but the money may be tied to Fatah’s continued involvement, meaning the unhappily married couple may have to attend many more meetings in Gaza together for a while.
Even if the cash is conditional, some still say the unity government will dissolve through in-fighting.
But could it last? Ironically, the same Gaza-based cynics believe it will.
“Israel needs the unity government to preserve calm and quiet in Gaza,” says Amer. “It’s also needs a punching bag if something goes wrong.”