Palestinian Factions Begin Unity Meeting in Cairo

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CAIRO, March 11, 2009 – Rival Palestinian factions began a meeting in Cairo on Tuesday aimed at forming a national unity government and resolving major disputes between Hamas and Fatah, the two largest groups.

Senior delegations from Hamas and Fatah and smaller factions were due to start work in five reconciliation committees which they agreed to form last month in the Egyptian capital.

Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief who has been mediating between the factions, launched the meeting with an address calling on the factions to work hard toward a reconciliation, the Egyptian state-news agency MENA reported.

But lingering distrust between the Islamist Hamas rulers of Gaza and the Western-backed Fatah threatens to complicate the talks.

The stakes are high after Israel’s devastating 22-day military offensive in Gaza, which ended on January 18 leaving 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

International donors pledged 4.5 billion dollars for reconstruction aid for the impoverished coastal strip last month.

But many donor countries, backed by Abbas’s government, have said they would not deal with the Hamas government in Gaza.

Western governments have expressed their support for Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas’s proposal for a government of independents and technocrats.

“On the issue of the government and its programme we are not too far off,” senior Fatah negotiator Nabil Shaath, the faction’s representative in the committee tasked with forming a government, told AFP.

“What will be the difficult questions are the tasks the government would have and one is the security issue,” he said.

Hamas and Fatah have been bitterly divided since the Islamists seized Gaza in a week of deadly fighting in June 2007, limiting Fatah’s powerbase to Abbas’s Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

A Hamas official has accused the PA of continuing to arrest Hamas members in the West Bank. “I say clearly: we will not sign any agreement so long as the issue of political prisoners is not resolved,” he said, requesting anonymity.

Another issue is the restructuring of the Fatah-controlled Palestine Liberation Organisation, which has served as an umbrella group since 1968 but in which Hamas is not represented.

Fatah and Hamas, which won a majority in 2005 parliamentary elections, in February 2007 signed an agreement in Mecca, Saudi Arabia to form a national unity government. That was four months before Hamas seized Gaza.

The committees formed by the factions are to work on forming a unity government, reforming the security services and PLO, on new presidential and parliamentary elections, and cementing national reconciliation.

By Samer al-Atrush

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