For the first time since 2007, Palestinian Authority officials traveled Thursday from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip.
Describing the day as “historic,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah held a first meeting of the new unity government that took office in June after a reconciliation accord between the rival Palestinian political factions of Fatah and Hamas.
The April accord ended a seven-year rift that started when the militant group Hamas forcefully wrested control of the Gaza Strip after winning elections the year before, seizing control of the coastal strip and leaving Palestinians sharply divided between the West Bank and Gaza.
The Hamas takeover also prompted an Israeli and, later, Egyptian blockade on Gaza, placing severe restrictions on the increasingly isolated territory.
Hamdallah and other ministers of the new Palestinian government crossed into Gaza through the Erez crossing, after Israeli authorities issued 24-hour permits for them to travel from the West Bank.
Hamas security forces were deployed from Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip to escort the convoy. Upon arrival, Hamdallah told reporters that he comes with a “message of hope” for Palestinians in Gaza. “We have left the division behind us”, he said, adding that the goals at hand were “to restore Gaza to normal life and to unity with the West Bank.”
The Cabinet convened in what used to be Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Gaza residence. Abbas has not set foot in Gaza since 2007 and did not travel there for the landmark event.
Afterward Hamdallah met with Hamas political bureau leader Ismail Haniyeh, who served as the movement’s prime minister in Gaza until the reconciliation accord.
Thursday’s meeting is regarded as a largely symbolic move to signal a beginning of political normality in war-battered Gaza and renewed responsibility of the moderate Palestinian Authority that will enable the massive reconstruction urgently needed in Gaza, pummeled by Israeli airstrikes during the summer war.
In addition to attending the Cabinet meeting, government officials will tour areas of Beit Hanoun and Shajaiya that suffered particularly widespread devastation.
The meeting comes three days before an international donors conference in Cairo, where the Palestinian Authority will try to secure pledges of at least $4 billion needed to rebuild Gaza.
More than 100,000 Gazans remain displaced after their homes were destroyed in the 50-day war that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to international agencies, and left civilian infrastructure in ruins.
Wary of aid being diverted for military moves that could lead to another war and further destruction, the international community is keen to see an effective Palestinian Authority role in Gaza.
In recent weeks, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations agreed on a mechanism for supervising the transfer of construction materials into Gaza and monitoring their use to ensure they are utilized for civilian purposes only.
The U.S. was pleased the sides agreed on a procedure “expediting passage of relief materials into Gaza while taking into account Israel’s security needs,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday.
The donors conference will be attended by Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
It was not immediately clear whether Israel was invited to the conference. “We do think that Israel will need to play a role in the Gaza reconstruction,” Psaki said.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.