Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hope for Palestinian Unity?

Palestinian Factions Seek Unity Government, Plan Elections

By Mariam Fam and Gwen Ackerman
April 28, 2011

Palestinian Fatah delegation chief Azzam al-Ahmad, right, shakes hands with Hamas deputy leader Musa Abu Marzouk after a joint press conference in Cairo. Photographer: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

The rival Palestinian Hamas and Fatah groups have reached a preliminary agreement to end their almost four-year divide and form a unity government.

The agreement also calls for legislative and presidential elections in a year, Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad said in an interview yesterday after a joint press conference with Hamas negotiators.

Egypt, which acted as mediator during the secret talks, will host a meeting of Palestinian factions next week for a formal signing ceremony, al-Ahmad said.

“Today, we open a new page of unity and agreement, of closing ranks and struggling together,” Hamas official Musa Abu Marzouk said. The formation of a unity government of technocrats will begin next week after the accord is signed, he said.

Israel said the deal would kill any chance for peace talks and the U.S. said Hamas can’t play a “constructive role” as long as it is unwilling to accept Israel’s right to exist. Hamas—considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel—rejects the peace negotiations and refuses to recognize the Jewish state.

The Palestinian move follows protests in March in which thousands of Palestinians, inspired by the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, rallied in support of reconciliation between Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank.

Gazans celebrated in the streets yesterday, Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said in a phone interview.

“This is a very significant for the Palestinian people,” Abusada said.

The announcement also comes as Palestinian Authority officials lobby Western countries to recognize a Palestinian state in September.

“If we think of the Palestinian Authority being serious about the declaration of statehood in September, it would have been absurd with two authorities,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, outside Tel Aviv. “We will see how far they get.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a unity agreement would put an end to any chance of peace talks, stalled since September, between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“The Palestinian Authority must choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas,” Netanyahu said in broadcast and e-mailed comments. “The very idea of reconciliations shows the weakness of the Palestinian Authority.”

U.S. Wary

The Obama administration sounded a wary note following the announcement. “As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.

“Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians,” he said in an e-mail statement. “To play a constructive role in achieving peace, any Palestinian government must accept the Quartet principles and renounce violence, abide by past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”

Fatah and Hamas officials said the two sides would form a committee to address the issue of security under a unity government.

The split between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction and the Islamic Hamas movement dates to 2007, when Hamas ousted Abbas’s forces from the Gaza Strip a year after winning parliamentary elections. That ended a coalition government with Fatah and left Abbas in control of only the West Bank.


Abbas said on March 16 that he planned to visit Gaza in a bid to heal the divide that has forced repeated delays in plans to hold elections.

The Israeli army and Egypt both sealed off Gaza’s borders after Hamas took over, cutting off most civilian traffic and restricting trade with the territory. Israel has maintained a ground and sea blockade around Gaza ever since.

Palestinian Authority leaders have said they will seek United Nations recognition of a state in September if negotiations with Israel aren’t resumed.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority broke down several weeks after they started in September 2010, when Netanyahu refused to extend a partial 10-month construction freeze in the West Bank and Abbas said he wouldn’t negotiate until all construction was halted.

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