by Matthew Bell
After months of fruitless negotiations, officials from rival factions Hamas and Fatah said they will sit down and sign a reconciliation agreement next week in Cairo, Egypt. The deal would set up an interim government and fix a date for elections next year.
On Thursday, demonstrators in Ramallah chanted slogans in support of Palestinian unity. A young Fatah member said this is fantastic news for all Palestinians, regardless of their political affiliation or where they live.
"I think every Palestinian here in Ramallah and in Gaza supports the reconciliation because it represents our unity and we cannot be freed out of the Israeli occupation without the reconciliation," the man said.
Israeli leaders said Thursday, the Palestinian Authority is about to make a big mistake, by choosing peace with Hamas instead of peace with Israel.
"Making peace with both is impossible because of Hamas' stated goal of destroying the state of Israel," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. "Hamas fires rockets at Israeli cities and children. The concept of Palestinian reconciliation raises questions about the Islamist group seizing control of the West Bank, just as it did in Gaza four years ago."
Speaking to reporters, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responded to that criticism, saying the Hamas leadership and the group's members cannot simply be ignored.
"I cannot exclude them. Like or dislike, agree with them or disagree with them, they are our people, a part of our people," Abbas said.
The rift between Hamas and Fatah is no small thing. The two have been locked in a bitter factional dispute for some five years now and hundreds of Palestinians have died as a result. Now there are big unanswered questions about what an interim unity government would mean.
Willing to talk peace with Israel?
What would "combined" Palestinian national security forces look like, especially given that they are divided both geographically and ideologically. Would these forces, for example, continue their security cooperation with the Israeli military in the West Bank?
But Fatah official Husam Zumlot says there is some certainty here already. He said Hamas has agreed to three fundamentals:
"No violence, '67 borders, and we will go back to negotiations once the grounds are different and the process is genuine."
In other words, the same principles espoused by President Abbas — and supported in Washington — would remain in effect during an interim Palestinian government. Zumlot added that this reconciliation deal is intended to be a first step toward something much bigger and it deserves widespread support.
"We know our responsibilities and I believe that the agreement was struck in Cairo yesterday, delivers most if not all the goods the international community will require," Zumlot said. "This is a time when the international community gives us a chance because we the Palestinians have been known — and we have the history to support this — to be a democratic society."
The White House is being cautious about the news, saying it welcomes Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote peace. But the US still considers Hamas a terrorist organization. The congresswoman who controls foreign aid has already threatened to "re-examine US funding to the Palestinian government."