JERUSALEM — In a symbolic step toward ending a decade-long rift with Hamas, the Palestinian prime minister visited the Gaza Strip on Monday, though major obstacles still lie in the way of rapprochement.
A crowd of hundreds welcomed Rami Hamdallah, a representative of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party, after he passed through the Erez border crossing from Israel to enter Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas.
Footage of the event showed well-wishers cramming rooftops and balconies, and some waving yellow Fatah flags, as Hamdallah made his way through packed streets.
“We came back to Gaza to end all signs of division and rebuild,” Hamdallah said at a televised news conference. “There will be no Palestinian state without Gaza.”
Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007 after bloody street fighting when Fatah refused to recognize Hamas’s election win and give up control. Fatah, which runs the Palestinian Authority, has been responsible for administering areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In recent months, Egypt has brokered talks aimed at bringing the two sides together.
In what was seen as a gesture of goodwill, Hamas invited Hamdallah’s unity government, led by Fatah, to take control of administrating Gaza last month. Hamas also dissolved its own administrative committee and said it was ready to hold elections.
“Hamas now isn’t interested in ruling Gaza alone,” said Ghazi Hamad, a de facto foreign minister for Hamas in Gaza. “We want to stop bleeding and have one political system and save our power and energy to struggle against Israel.”
Hamas has struggled to rule under years of blockade by Israel, but Fatah also has imposed punitive measures against the militant group in recent months, requesting that Israel cut its electricity supply and ceasing payments to government employees in the strip.
Husam Zomlot, the chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Washington office, said the meetings in Gaza mark a milestone in the Palestinian quest for an independent state. The PLO is recognized by more than 100 states as the representative of the Palestinian people.
“We have declared war on the division,” he told reporters Monday. “We intend to go all the way to make sure that Gaza is back to the central authority, that Gaza is back as an integral part of our occupied territories and a future state.”
Gaza and the West Bank are divided geographically by Israel, which also controls movement between the two Palestinian territories.
Hamdallah met with Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yehiya Sinwar and is expected to head a Tuesday cabinet meeting in Gaza.
U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt said that the United States would be "watching these developments closely."
“The United States stresses that any Palestinian government must explicitly and unambiguously commit to nonviolence, recognition of the State of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties, and peaceful negotiations,” he said in a statement.
Past efforts at reconciliation have been derailed over issues including the dismantling of the Hamas armed wing, which still remains a major obstacle. The two sides would also have to agree on what happens to tens of thousands of employees of Hamas's shadow administration in Gaza.
"We've tried before, but we've failed, despite hundreds of attempts at reconciliation," said Hamad, citing security and Hamas's desire to join the PLO.
Hamad said he expects Israel to oppose efforts at unity and attempt to disrupt them.
In the past, Israel has denounced negotiations with a group that does not recognize it. Israel and the United States classify Hamas as a terrorist organization.
But Israeli officials have recently said that improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza is in Israel's security interests. Israel has waged three wars with Hamas since it took control of Gaza, retaliating against rocket attacks and other violence by the militant group.
"We will judge any kind of conversation between Hamas and the Fatah organization according to specific parameters: First of all, are they willing to accept the existence of Israel in this area? Second, are they going to stop shooting and creating terror actions in Israel? And third, do they look to a future of living side by side?" said Yoav Galant, an Israeli cabinet member and former Israel Defense Forces commander responsible for Gaza.
"If the answer to these questions is positive, there is a lot to talk about," he said. "If the answers to these questions are negative, nothing has changed."
Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.