Palestinian government resigns ahead of post-Gaza war overhaul


JERUSALEM — The Palestinian Authority’s prime minister presented the resignation of the entire government on Monday, opening the way for a revitalized administration that the United States and its allies envision taking on an expanded role in postwar Gaza.

The United States and several Arab countries have been pushing a plan — openly opposed by the Israeli government — that would see Gaza eventually administered by the Palestinian Authority, which has long been marred by dysfunction and is hugely unpopular among Palestinians.

Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said in a news conference Monday that he had tendered the government’s resignation to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas because of the “significant political, security and economic developments” stemming from Israel’s war in Gaza alongside increased violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Abbas accepted the resignation, but asked the government to remain in a caretaker capacity until a new one is formed, according to Palestinian news agency WAFA.

“The next phase and its challenges require a new government and political arrangements that take into account the new reality in the Gaza Strip, national unity and the urgent need for achieving inter-Palestinian consensus,” Shtayyeh said.

The move follows months of intense deliberations between Ramallah, Washington and Arab states on how best to boost the legitimacy and efficiency of the Palestinian Authority so it can be part of a postwar solution in Gaza.

The consensus has converged on a vision for an empowered prime minister role and a government of technocrats that can curb the largely unchecked power currently exercised by the 88-year-old Abbas and his inner circle, according to U.S. and Palestinian officials.

But major stumbling blocks remain: Israel has said it will not accept Palestinian Authority rule over Gaza in any postwar scenario and has vehemently opposed calls from the United States for a Palestinian state. And there is skepticism over Abbas’s willingness to relinquish power and to enact deep reforms that go beyond a change of faces.

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“If Abbas continues to appoint people, continues to dismiss people, where is the change exactly?” said Nasser al-Qidwa, a longtime senior Fatah official now living in exile after breaking with Abbas. If a new cabinet is appointed, it will be “the same government with a different chapeau.”

The future of the Palestinian Authority — meant to one day evolve into the institutions of a Palestinian state — has been a subject of intense debate between the Israeli government and Washington, its closest international ally.

Abbas views efforts to take away presidential powers “with a great deal of suspicion” in part because he benefited from a similar scenario when he first became prime minister in 2003, said Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

At that time, the road map for peace put together by the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia also sought to bring in an “empowered” prime minister to curb the powers of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“Now here we are 21 years later and we see the same model,” Buttu said. “When people talk about a revitalized PA, what they are talking about is once again taking powers away from the president and giving them to the prime minister.”

Anyone who goes down that path is going to face a “showdown” with Abbas, Buttu said, saying it was probably one reason for Shtayyeh’s resignation.

As Shtayyeh spoke Monday, he criticized Israeli efforts to transform the authority into an administrative and security entity “devoid of any political significance.”

In Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “day-after” plan for Gaza, released last week, he envisions the enclave governed by “local entities with managerial experience,” leaving open the possibility of a role for a watered-down version of the authority.

When asked in a news briefing Monday whether Israel sees a new, technocratic Palestinian Authority as an acceptable body to govern Gaza, Ilana Stein, head of international affairs at the Israeli government’s Public Diplomacy Directorate, said it would have to disavow Hamas and its actions.

“We have to see what kind of government will be in place after the war and then we can discuss this,” she said.

The Palestinian Authority administered Gaza until Abbas’s Fatah party lost elections in 2006, and Hamas seized control a year later after bloody internecine clashes.

The authority was set up 30 years ago as part of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. It was established as an interim body with a five-year mandate, designed to oversee the creation of as a Palestinian state.

But as hopes for a two-state solution have receded, the authority has struggled to gain popular legitimacy. Its security cooperation with Israel has led many Palestinians to view it as a tool of the occupying power.

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The Palestinian political shake-up came as talks resumed in Doha, Qatar, to try to reach a deal on the release of more than 100 remaining Israeli hostages held in Gaza in exchange for a cease-fire. An Israeli delegation arrived for the discussions, which are “lower-level technical talks,” according to one Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. There was “not much optimism” that they would bring progress, he said.

Benny Gantz, a member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, has said that if the hostages are not released by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — which begins around March 10 — Israel will expand its assault on Gaza to the southern city of Rafah, home to some 1.4 million displaced Palestinians

Washington and other allies have urged Israel to hold off on a military assault until civilians can be safely relocated. Stein said the IDF has presented the war cabinet with a plan for evacuating Rafah, but refused to elaborate beyond saying that people would be allowed to move north.

The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who remain in the north of the Gaza Strip face a desperate struggle for survival. Aid deliveries to the north have all but ceased amid widespread chaos caused by acute shortages and the Israeli targeting of police forces that had guarded convoys. The United Nations is among those lobbying Israel to allow aid deliveries through a crossing in the north.

“It’s being discussed and it seems there is a willingness to consider a northern opening, whether Karni or elsewhere,” said James McGoldrick, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, referring to a border crossing that Israel closed in 2011.

Diplomats have also expressed concerns that the lack of a truce in Gaza could increase the risk of an expanded regional conflict, as Israel and Hezbollah enter a cycle of escalation. Hezbollah, the Iranian-aligned paramilitary that is also Lebanon’s most powerful political group, has tied its participation in any negotiations to temper border tensions to a cease-fire in Gaza.

The Israeli military said its warplanes struck Hezbollah air defenses in the Bekaa Valley on Monday — among its deepest bombing runs into Lebanon since the conflict began — in response to the group’s downing of an Israeli drone.

A spokesperson for Hezbollah said that two of its members were killed in the strike.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Sunday that more strikes were planned against Hezbollah, especially if there was a cease-fire in Gaza.

“If a temporary pause is reached in Gaza, we will increase the fire in the north separately, and will continue until the full withdrawal of Hezbollah [from the border] and the return of Israeli citizens to their homes,” he said.

Balousha reported from Amman, Jordan. Leo Sands and Annabelle Timsit in London and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report



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