Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank started registering on Monday to vote in a long-delayed election that is aimed at healing nearly six years of bitter rifts among rival factions.
However, with no date yet set for either the overdue legislative or presidential ballot and with the main political blocs still bickering over their reconciliation drive, the chances of lasting unity looked as elusive as ever.
Hundreds of Palestinians queued up at registration centers to make sure their names were on the lists in case any ballot materialized, although many were openly skeptical about the possibility of a rapid breakthrough.
"There is very little hope. It is a bit like Satan's hope to go to Heaven," said 56-year-old Naeem Doghmosh as he put his name down on the Gaza electoral roll.
The Islamist group Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from its secular Fatah rivals in a 2007 civil war, had previously barred the Palestinian Central Election Commission (CEC) from operating on its turf.
It relented following Egyptian-brokered talks between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction, which still holds sway over the occupied West Bank.
However the latest meetings in Cairo at the weekend went badly, officials said, with no agreement on the formation of a unity government or on a revision of the Palestine Liberation Organization -- the Palestinians' highest decision-making body.
"The Cairo talks did not achieve the breakthrough that we had hoped for, but they did not collapse," Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's Gaza prime minister, said in a statement after he met the CEC chairman, Hanna Naser.
The CEC says its registration drive is aimed at allowing an estimated 700,000 Palestinians to enroll, adding their names to some 1.5 million people already listed. The process is due to be completed by Feb. 18 and, in theory, an election could then be called three months later.
Palestinians last held a parliamentary vote in 2006, when Hamas swept to power, ending the dominance of Fatah and alarming Western powers, which view the group as a terrorist organization for its refusal to renounce violence or to recognize Israel.
The following civil war ensured that the Palestinians became both geographically and politically divided.
Worried about their growing democracy deficit, Palestinians staged local elections in the West Bank last year. These were boycotted by Hamas, which complains that its supporters are routinely rounded up and imprisoned by Fatah forces.
Both sides blamed the other for lack of progress in the recent Cairo talks.
"The two sides were not ready to make the necessary concessions and meet in the middle of the road. They are still afraid of the concept of power sharing," said Gaza political analyst, Talal Okal.
Bassam Al-Zbaidi, a West Bank political analyst, said that while voter registration was a procedural matter, the differences over security issues between the two factions could not be easily overcome.
"Reconciliation is very far away," he said.
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