GAZA CITY: Palestinian rivals Fatah and Hamas signed a unity deal in Cairo on Thursday aimed at ending their decade-long dispute.
After a series of previous failed attempts at reconciliation, could this bid succeed?
The deal was signed after two days of negotiations overseen by Egypt, which has pushed the Islamist movement Hamas to reconcile with Fatah in exchange for help in easing a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, when it seized it from the PA in a near civil war following a dispute over elections won by the Islamists. Multiple previous reconciliation attempts have failed.
Thursday`s deal says the Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah, is to resume full control of Gaza by December 1. Talks on a unity government are also now expected to be held.The most immediate issue is the suffering of the two million Gazans, who have faced three devastating wars with Israel since 2008 as well as crippling blockades by both Israel and Egypt.
They suffer from desperate shortages of electricity and high unemployment.
The decade-long division has also been a key obstacle to peace talks with Israel.
Gaza and the West Bank are supposed to form a future independent state but president Mahmud Abbas, long the negotiating partner for Israel, has been undermined by Hamas`s control of Gaza.
"The division cripples the Palestinians from being able to move forward in a constructive manner in achieving the goal of returning back to negotiations and implementing a two-state solution," UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov recently told AFP.Past failures have inevitably sparked scepticism about the latest reconciliation effort, but some analysts believe Hamas may now be forced to make further concessions.
Last week, Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah`s ministers symbolically took the keys to government offices in Gaza.
Nour Odeh, a political analyst based in the West Bank, contrasted this with the previous reconciliation attempt in 2014, when ministers of a unity government were often not allowed to leave their hotels by Hamas.
"These things are important -- they help to create an atmosphere that is a snowball that can continue rolling," she told AFP.Following Thursday`s deal, the various Palestinian political factions have been invited to another meeting in Cairo on November 21.
Some 3,000 Palestinian Authority (PA) police officers are also due to redeploy to the Gaza Strip, according to a source involved in the talks.
That figure is however far below the more than 20,000 police officers employed separately by Hamas.
Control over the Gaza Strip`s crossings with Israel will be handed over to the Palestinian Authority by November 1, according to a Fatah negotiator, while the Egyptian border will need more time.
The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas`s armed wing with an estimated 25,000 members, remains a key stumbling block and there was no mention on Thursday of how it will be resolved.
Senior Hamas officials have said that dissolving the armed wing is out of the question, but Abbas insists the PA must have full control.
Hamas could not "copy or clone Hezbollah`s experience in Lebanon", he warned recently, referring to a situation where an independent armed group exerts major influence on national politics.
A second major sticking point will be the fate of tens of thousands of government employees recruited by Hamas since 2007.
The agreement foresees that issue being resolved by February, Hamas`s Al-Aqsa TV reported.
A third issue is a series of punitive measures taken by Abbas against Hamas in recent months, including cutting electricity payments for Gaza.
A Fatah official said Abbas will soon lift the measures and visit the Gaza Strip for the first time in a decade.Reconciliation between the Palestinian rivals will likely complicate international efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Hamas has not recognised Israel, unlike the Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organisation, nor has it renounced violence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already warned his government will not accept any reconciliation deal unless Hamas disarms and recognises Israel`s right to exist.
Washington, which is seeking to relaunch the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, has welcomed the return of the PA government to Gaza.
But it has warned any Palestinian government must accept Israel`s right to exist.
The United Nations has so far welcomed the reconciliation steps, stressing Gaza`s humanitarian crisis must be tackled.