Months after reconciliation efforts stalled between the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, the two groups reached an agreement on Thursday. It calls for Hamas to be admitted into the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the umbrella group for Palestinian nationalist movements.
"The reconciliation has taken off. It might take time, but we have started," said Azzam al-Ahmed, a top Fatah negotiator, after the meeting between the two groups in Cairo.
According to the agreement, Hamas' supreme leader, Khaled Meshaal, will serve on an election commission along with Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, to prepare for the PLO's first ever popular presidential and parliamentary elections. The election would enable Hamas, which currently controls the Gaza Strip, to become a full member of the larger Palestinian Authority.
Hamas, a designated terrorist organization, has long clashed with Fatah, mostly over the latter group's efforts to make peace with Israel. Despite recent progress, the two groups are still not in agreement on every issue, having failed to create a new Palestinian caretaker government.
Similar political differences are likely to postpone PLO elections, but the latest agreement shows both sides are eager and committed to ending their rivalry.
According to their leadership, the Arab Spring is the reason for the renewed efforts at unification. Hamas, in particular, is said to be feeling "emboldened" by the recent success of Islamist parties in places like Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt.
Other sources indicate that Hamas' new alliance with the PLO is more out of necessity, with the group's primary sponsors, Iran and Syria, falling on hard times. Iran is having difficulty meeting its financial obligations as a result of tough sanctions aimed at halting its nuclear program. And uprisings in Syria are threatening to topple the existing government there. The unrest has even caused Hamas' external leadership to flee Damascus.
As a result of its changing circumstances, Hamas has made statements indicating that it might soften its stance towards Israel and accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza only, at least as a first step. Meshaal has also said he would not interfere with efforts by Abbas to continue peace talks with Israel.
Israel, however, remains skeptical.
"No one in the international community should have illusions as to Hamas," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said. "This is a movement that is terrorist to the core. When Abu Mazen [Abbas] walks toward Hamas, he's walking away from peace."