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Wednesday's tragic incident in Beit Hanun, in which 19 civilians were killed when stray IDF shells hit their homes, has brought Hamas and Fatah closer than ever to reaching a deal on a Palestinian unity government, Palestinian Authority officials said on Thursday.
They said PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who returned to Ramallah on Thursday after spending the last few days in Gaza City, met twice with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to put the final touches on an initial agreement over the formation of a unity government that the two reached earlier this month.
IDF fire kills 20 Palestinians in Gaza
Before the Beit Hanun killings, Abbas and Haniyeh were still reported to be at odds over some of the details concerning the proposed government. The two, for instance, were still unable to agree on the identity of the new prime minister, although Abbas had agreed to allow Hamas to name its own representatives in the new government.
However, since the incident, Abbas and Haniyeh, in a rare show of unity, have held a series of meetings in Gaza City. Moreover, the two have gone on joint tours, including one where they publicly donated blood for the victims of Beit Hanun.
In yet another sign of rapprochement between the two parties, Abbas phoned Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal on Thursday and discussed the unity government idea with him. The conversation was held in the presence of Haniyeh and other Hamas and Fatah leaders.
"The Beit Hanun killings have been good for Palestinian unity," a PA official told The Jerusalem Post. "Ironically and sadly, something good has come out of it. I believe we are now days away from signing a final deal on a unity government that will consist largely of independents and technocrats."
Another PA official pointed out that the phone conservation between Abbas and Mashaal was "extremely significant" because it was the first time in months that the two had talked.
Attempts over the past few weeks by several Arab countries, including Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to arrange a meeting between the two had failed. Relations between Abbas and Mashaal have been strained ever since the latter accused the PA chairman of being part of an Israeli-American scheme to bring down the Hamas government.
The most recent attempt to hold a sulha [reconciliation] between the two was made in Qatar, which has strong relations with the Hamas leadership as well as Abbas's Fatah party. The attempt failed after Mashaal turned down Abbas's demand to apologize publicly for his previous allegations.
Mustapha Barghouti, an independent legislator who was present during the phone conversation between Abbas and Mashaal, said the two reached an agreement on the "bases and mechanisms" of the unity government. "Abbas briefed Mashaal on the initial agreement that he had reached with Haniyeh," he said. It was a very positive conversation."
Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad pointed out that Abbas and Haniyeh met three times over the past 24 hours and managed to overcome many of the obstacles hindering the announcement of a unity government. Describing the talks as fruitful and positive, Hamad said Hamas presented Abbas with a list of its candidates for the premiership and ministers in the new government.
The renewed harmony between Hamas and Fatah comes as representatives of the two sides continued to issue calls for launching terror attacks inside Israel in retaliation for the Beit Hanun killings. Mashaal himself also threatened to resume terror attacks and suicide bombings in Israel during a press conference in Damascus on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians went on a three-day mourning strike on Thursday over the killings. In various parts of the West Bank, youths hurled stones at soldiers and barricaded themselves behind burning tires. No one was hurt.
In east Jerusalem, two policemen were lightly injured by stones during a protest on the main Salah a-Din Street. At least 200 schoolgirls staged a sit-in strike at the Temple Mount and later marched peacefully toward Damascus Gate in the Old City.