Officials from the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas movements have reached a reconciliation agreement, ending a four-year old split that led to the establishment of separate governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The agreement calls for the formation of a unity government in the next few days and preparations to have presidential and legislative elections a year from now.
"The two sides signed initial letters on an agreement. All points of differences have been overcome," said Taher Al-Nono, the government spokesman for Hamas in Gaza.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President, Mahmoud Abbas, has made several unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation with Hamas since the groups' unity government disintegrated following a five-day civil war in 2007, in which the Islamist Hamas movement seized control in Gaza.
To reach an agreement, Hamas leaders demanded a full power-sharing deal, including a division of security responsibilities. They also insisted on the release of hundreds of Hamas members imprisoned in the West Bank, the re-opening of outlawed Hamas charities, and the removal of a ban on Hamas activities in the West bank.
The recent push for an agreement with Hamas comes amidst a large-scale effort by Abbas to gain international recognition of Palestine as an independent state without signing a peace deal with Israel. The United Nations is expected to vote on this issue in September.
Though Palestinian officials maintain that a resolution with Hamas will help them win the UN vote, the reconciliation agreement already is threatening the PA's relationship with Israel and the United States.
"You can't have peace with both Israel and Hamas," warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Choose peace with Israel."
The U.S. administration, for its part, is the largest single donor to the Palestinians, providing more than $470 million a year in direct financial assistance. The U.S. withheld this support when Hamas was part of the Palestinian unity government in 2007 and will likely do so again unless Hamas agrees to renounce violence and recognize Israel. Hamas has so far shown no signs that it is willing to do either.
Hamas is seeking to use this situation as an opportunity to improve its relations with the new Egyptian regime. Egypt mediated the surprise agreement between Hamas and Fatah in a series of secret meetings and both groups are expected to visit Cairo shortly for an official signing. Hamas also is planning to send a senior delegation to visit Cairo, headed by Mousa Abu Marzook, deputy head of Hamas's political bureau. In an effort to bolster relations, the new Egyptian regime has demonstrated a willingness to reopen the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, release Palestinians held in Egyptian jails, and consider Hamas' request to allow a representative in Cairo.