Gaza City: Palestinians have reached initial agreement on reuniting their rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza, officials from both sides said Wednesday, a step that would remove a main obstacle in the way of peace efforts with Israel.
Even before the agreement was to be signed, however, key questions about how to unify rival security forces remained unsolved, and Israel immediately rejected the prospect of a Palestinian government including Hamas.
Fatah and Hamas officials said the plan, brokered by Egypt, calls for the formation of a single caretaker government in the coming days. The government would administer day-to-day business until new presidential and legislative elections are held in exactly one year.
"We have a comprehensive agreement now. We have agreed on all the issues," said Azzam al-Ahmed, the chief Fatah negotiator in the reconciliation talks. It was not clear when the agreement would be signed.
Hani Masri, a member of a Palestinian delegation that met with Hamas leaders in Syria and the new leadership in Egypt, said the political upheavals in both countries pushed the two rivals together and "made the agreement possible."
Al-Ahmed said that under the deal, Fatah and Hamas security forces would be unified and "restructured" under "Arab supervision."
In a sign of the sticky issues that remain unresolved, Hamas officials in Gaza said their security forces would retain control over the coastal strip for the time being. The Hamas officials spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement in Cairo later Wednesday.
The issue of the security forces lies at the heart of the Palestinian rift. Fatah and Hamas formed a short-lived unity government in 2007, only to see it disintegrate in several days of fighting in Gaza.
Hamas forces routed Fatah loyalists and have ruled Gaza since, leaving the Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas in control of only the West Bank. The Palestinians claim both territories, located on opposite sides of Israel, for a future independent state, along with east Jerusalem.
The internal rift has prevented the Palestinians from speaking in one voice. That, in turn, has made it next to impossible to move ahead with peace efforts with Israel. Talks have been stymied for months over a dispute about Israeli construction in West Bank settlements, but the unity issue has lurked prominently in the background.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a quick rejection of a Hamas role in a Palestinian unity government. Israel refuses to deal with Hamas, which does not recognize a place for a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East and has sent dozens of suicide bombers and thousands of rockets into Israel.
"The Palestinian Authority must choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas," Netanyahu said in a statement. "Peace with both is impossible because of the Hamas goal of destroying the state of Israel, which it expresses openly," he said, pointing to the ongoing rocket attacks.
"I believe the whole concept of reconciliation shows the weakness of the Palestinian Authority," he said, raising the prospect of a Hamas takeover of the West Bank as well as Gaza.
Israel has pushed for renewed Palestinian Authority control over Gaza, effectively sidelining Hamas.
Hamas has been branded a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union.
Palestinians intend to ask the United Nations General Assembly in September to recognize their state, despite the stalemate in negotiations. A functioning agreement to put all the Palestinian areas under a single government would boost that effort.
The terms of the deal leave some issues murky and others difficult to implement.
While Abbas would remain in power under the emerging unity deal, the agreement would require the two prime ministers — Salam Fayyad in the West Bank and Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza — to resign. Both have entrenched their positions in recent years, Haniyeh as the front man for Hamas in Gaza and Fayyad as the Palestinian bridge to the West and its aid.
Al-Ahmed said the sides would need to agree on a new prime minister in the coming days, a process that is likely to lead to deep disagreements.
Al-Ahmed said the new government would consist solely of political independents in order to not anger the international community.