Palestinian factions agree to reconciliation deal

Palestinian factions agree to reconciliation deal Cairo: Fifteen Palestinian factions, including militant Islamic groups, endorsed a reconciliation deal on Wednesday meant to end a four-year rift between the two major Palestinian political movements, Hamas and Fatah.

The declaration paved the way for the two groups to sign the agreement on Wednesday, then form a unity caretaker government to prepare for national elections next year.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a last-minute appeal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to cancel the impending unity deal, which he called a "hard blow to the peace process."

A draft of the document, obtained by The Associated Press, set a goal of "ending the divisions" and promises parliamentary and presidential elections within a year but left key issues like control of security forces and relations toward Israel vague.

The deal marks a major step toward ending the divisions that have left the Palestinians split between rival governments since 2007: the Islamist Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, while the Western-backed, Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority governs the West Bank.

The Palestinians hope to establish an independent state in both territories, located on opposite sides of Israel.

But reconciliation could also spell the end of hopes for peace talks with Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist organisation and says it will not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes the Iranian-backed group.

Netanyahu noted Hamas' refusal to recognise Israel's right to exist, as well as Hamas' condemnation of the US killing of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

"How is it possible to achieve peace with a government, half of which calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and even praises the arch-murderer Osama bin Laden?" Netanyahu said.

He made the comments to international Mideast envoy Tony Blair and promised to make similar appeals when he heads to Britain and France this week, according to a statement from his office.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been stalled since an Israeli freeze on West Bank construction expired in September. Abbas has said he will renew talks only if Israel halts construction of homes on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians.

Frustrated with US inability to break the impasse, Abbas has decided to focus on internal Palestinian affairs. Fatah's chief negotiator, Azzam al-Ahmed, said 15 smaller factions, including the violent Islamic Jihad, endorsed the unity deal today.