Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Palestinian Factions Sign Pact to End Rift

Published: May 4, 2011

CAIRO ? Rival Palestinian movements signed a historic reconciliation accord here on Wednesday vowing common cause against Israeli occupation, a product of shifting regional power relations and disillusionment with American peace efforts.

Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Fatah movement and an American ally ? at least until now ? joined forces with Khaled Meshal, the Syria-based head of Hamas, the Islamist group that rejects Israel?s existence and accepts arms and training from Iran.

At the signing ceremony inside Egypt?s intelligence headquarters, men from Mr. Abbas?s Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, and from Hamas, which rules Gaza� ?� who had for four years viewed one another as solemn enemies� ?� embraced and even joked. But they also expressed steely mutual resolve.

?We will have one authority and one decision,? Mr. Meshal said from the podium. ?We need to achieve the common goal: a Palestinian state with full sovereignty on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital, no settlers, and we will not give up the right of return.?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, visiting London, denounced the pact as ?a tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism.? The Obama administration has been cautious, saying it needs more details. In a sign of declining relations, Mr. Abbas gave the administration no warning of the deal first publicized last week.

Much about the pact remains to be determined ? how it will define resistance, whether the two sides? militaries can be coordinated and what happens to American and European aid. But it was agreed that a government of unaffiliated technocrats would prepare for elections across the West Bank and Gaza within a year.

In a sign of early change on the ground, Hamas television was beamed for the first time into the West Bank and Palestinian Authority television into Gaza.

The forces that produced this unexpected reconciliation deal are many ? the changes in Egypt, the troubles of the government in Syria, the failure of peace negotiations with Israel and Mr. Abbas? plans to retire.

On Wednesday, Mr. Abbas saluted Palestinian youngsters who had taken to the streets on March 15. Compared with other recent uprisings, that rally in Gaza City was small potatoes ? 10,000 calling for unity between Hamas and Fatah.

But it was the biggest turnout for an unauthorized demonstration in four years of Hamas rule. And although advertised as a call for unity, it was a sign of rising public discontent, the first clear indication that the regional earthquake would not spare the Palestinians. From that moment, negotiations grew serious.

Hamas had rejected a very similar unity agreement signed by Fatah nearly two years ago but, in truth, that offer was halfhearted. Mr. Abbas, along with his allies, the old Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak, the United States and Israel, wanted Hamas to be seen as the problem. A negotiated peace deal, he believed, would force Hamas? hand later.

Mr. Abbas said last week that he had come close to an agreement with Ehud Olmert, then the prime minister of Israel, in 2008. When he tried to pick up negotiations with Mr. Netanyahu the next year, he faced a more hawkish approach.

?He wanted Israeli troops in the valley and on the heights for 40 years,? Mr. Abbas told a group of Israeli guests, speaking of areas in the West Bank. ?That means a continuation of the occupation.?

Therefore, from September 2010 when Mr. Abbas concluded that negotiations were doomed, he began down another path ? reconciliation with Hamas and a campaign for a United Nations declaration of Palestinian statehood in September. He has said repeatedly that he will not run for the presidency again and a number of people who know him believe he wants to end his career on a note of unity.

Hamas was brought on board through meetings in Cairo under the auspices of the new Egyptian government.

In late March, the new Egyptian foreign minister, Nabil el-Araby, invited a delegation from Hamas to Cairo to meet at the Foreign Ministry instead of the intelligence headquarters or a hotel meeting room ? effectively upgrading them from militants to diplomats, some later said.

?The foreign minister told them, ?We do not want to talk about a ?peace process,?�? said Ambassador Menha Bakhoum, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry. ??We want a peace, and the only way to talk about peace is to end the divisions so we can have one Palestinian voice.?

In turn, Hamas brought up a reopening of the Gaza border with Egypt, kept essentially closed by Mr. Mubarak in keeping with a request by Israel to isolate Hamas. The Egyptians said they would open it and things moved quickly.

Fares Akram contributed reporting from Gaza, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.



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