The two sides say an interim national unity government will be established, with elections within a year.

By Conal Urquhart and Harriet Sherwood    

The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas (right) and the Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, in 2007. Photograph: Khalil Hamra/AP

Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah are on the verge of a historic reconciliation which will put them on a collision course with Israel.

A deal between the two organisations, bitter adversaries for four years, was agreed in Cairo on Wednesday after a series of secret meetings brokered by Egypt.

The two sides said “all points of differences have been overcome”, and an interim national unity government would be established, leading to Palestine-wide presidential and parliamentary elections within a year.

The Israeli government immediately sounded the alarm over the prospect of having to deal with Hamas. “The Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. There is no possibility for peace with both,” said prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The US, which hopes to facilitate a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians this year, reacted cautiously to the news. “The United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace. Hamas, however, is a terrorist organisation which targets civilians,” said a spokesman. Any Palestinian government must renounce violence and recognise Israel’s right to exist if it is to play a constructive role, he added.

The details of the deal, expected to be formally signed in Cairo next week, were not spelled out. But Hamas said it included a combined security force and the release of prisoners held by both sides, as well as a unity government and elections.

The unexpected accord follows mounting pressure in Gaza and the West Bank, driven by non-affiliated youth groups, for reconciliation between the factions. Large demonstrations calling for unity were held in March, with more planned for May.

The youth groups were inspired by pro-democracy movements in the region, principally in Egypt, which has close ties to Gaza. The strength of mood alarmed the factions’ leaders, who sought to co-opt the protests in an attempt to contain them.

The deal is likely to be viewed with suspicion by extreme hardline Islamist groups in Gaza, who have accused Hamas of abandoning armed resistance against Israel under its de facto ceasefire agreement. Such groups may try to sabotage the agreement by launching violent attacks on Hamas and Fatah as well as Israel. Read more…

This article was published on guardian.co.uk on Wednesday 27 April 2011. A version appeared on p1 of the Main section section of the Guardian on Thursday 28 April 2011.


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