The Palestinians try to reconcile

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IT MUST have felt like déjà vu for Rami Hamdallah, the Palestinian prime minister, as he crossed the heavily-fortified border into Gaza on October 2nd. It was his first visit in two-and-a-half years. There were speeches, rallies and lofty promises to end the schism that has paralysed Palestinian politics for more than a decade. It was like a replay of a trip he made in 2014 to inaugurate a new unity government— which fell apart within weeks.

The Palestinian territories split in 2007, a year after Hamas, the militant Islamist group, won a majority in parliament. It seized control of Gaza after months of bloody fighting with its nationalist rival, Fatah. Since then Hamas has run the coastal strip as a separate fief, with its own civil servants and police. The two parties have signed six reconciliation deals meant to end the split, but none held. Hamas was loth to give up its enclave.

Now it seems more amenable. It has agreed to cede control of the civilian ministries in Gaza. Over the coming year it will add 3,000 police officers from the Palestinian Authority (PA), which runs the West Bank and is dominated by Fatah. Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s number two, said he would “break the neck” of anyone who opposes reconciliation. (That may not be an idle threat: in the 1980s his job was to kill Palestinians who collaborated with Israel.)

Hamas has few alternatives at this point. Life in Gaza has been grim for a decade, amid three wars and a blockade imposed by both Israel and Egypt. Conditions worsened further this spring when Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, slapped his own sanctions on the territory to press Hamas into a deal. Most of Gaza’s 2m people receive just four hours of electricity a day. Tap water is equally scarce and when it is available it is brackish and polluted. Nearly two-thirds of young people cannot find work. In dingy, crowded hospitals, basic medicines are in short supply. Hamas is keen to put someone else in charge of the misery.

So are regional powers. Qatar, the main sponsor of Hamas, is under embargo by Egypt and three of its Gulf neighbours, which want the emirate to cut ties with Islamists. It has not halted aid to Hamas, but it has quietly urged the group to reconcile with Fatah. The United Arab Emirates has dangled the prospect of massive investment in a post-Hamas Gaza. It is working closely with Muhammad Dahlan, an ex-Fatah security boss who was banished by Mr Abbas and now lives in Abu Dhabi.

The greatest pressure has come from Egypt, which controls Rafah, the sole border crossing accessible to most Palestinians. It has been largely closed since 2013. Egypt accuses Hamas of working with jihadists who are fighting a bloody insurgency in Sinai. Though the charges are exaggerated, Hamas has indeed allowed dozens of wanted Egyptian militants to seek refuge in Gaza. The generals in Cairo would be happy to see Mr Abbas’s men back on the border.

Hamas has not agreed to that. It may let Mr Abbas run the schools and hospitals, but it will not give up a militia that boasts tens of thousands of fighters and a cache of rockets. “This will never be up for discussion,” says Moussa Abu Marzouk, a top Hamas official. So this effort is likely to fail for the same sorts of reasons as the past six. Mr Abbas cannot accept a well-armed group operating under his nose. It would be a threat to the unpopular president’s tenuous rule.

It could also bankrupt his government. Israel would probably withhold the tax revenue on which the PA depends, and some Western countries might suspend foreign aid. “If someone from Hamas has a weapon, I’ll put him in prison,” Mr Abbas told Egyptian television. He may not get the chance.