Palestinian Rivals to form ‘unity’ govt
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February 10, 2012
An agreement between Fatah and Hamas that unites Palestinian factions that have fought each other for years has turned the Arab-Israeli peace process on its ear. After months of wavering, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took a decisive step Monday toward reconciliation with rival group Hamas, a move Israel promptly warned would close the door to any future peace talks.

In a deal brokered by Qatar, Abbas will head an interim unity government to prepare for general elections in the Palestinian territories in the coming months. The agreement appeared to bring reconciliation -- key to any nationhood ambitions -- within reach for the first time since the two sides set up rival Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza in 2007.

Monday's deal, signed in the Qatari capital of Doha by Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, put an end to recent efforts by the international community to revive long-stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on the terms of Palestinian nationhood.

The agreement overcomes a fundamental difference over who would run the interim authority that had split the two factions and also paves the way for elections in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Reconciliation talks between the two factions have struggled to make progress since an agreement in principle was signed last spring. A major issue has been who would lead the government. Hamas insisted on the removal of the present prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who has strong western backing for the progress he has made on building the institutions of a future Palestinian state.

Meshaal said: "We are serious, both Fatah and Hamas, in healing the wounds and ending the chapter of division and reinforcing and accomplishing reconciliation." Rapprochement was necessary "to resist the enemy and achieve our national goals", he added.

The agreement would be "implemented in the shortest time possible", Abbas said.

There was no immediate response from Ismail Haniyeh, the de facto Hamas prime minister of Gaza. Over recent months, a rift has opened between the Gaza-based leadership of the Islamist organisation and its external leadership on the group's future strategy.

Israel and the United States have voiced concern about a closer relationship between Fatah and Hamas, and are opposed to any unity government that includes Hamas. Despite Meshaal's efforts to turn Hamas towards a strategy of popular resistance, it has not formally renounced violence and accepted Israel's right to exist.

Under the reconciliation agreement, elections were due to be held by May but few observers believe they will take place this year. The Palestinian election commission has said more time is needed to organise polling. It is also thought Israel will not permit Palestinians in East Jerusalem to participate in elections.

Hamas could emerge from elections as the majority party again following its success in the last polls, in 2006. That led to increasing strife between the two factions, culminating in a bloody battle in Gaza in June 2007 when Hamas took control of the territory. Since then, the West Bank and Gaza have operated as separate political entities.

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