Fatah, Hamas agree on prisoner swap

Sides compete to control $2.8b. in aid as reconciliation talks get underway in Cairo.

rebuilding gaza 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
rebuilding gaza 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Hamas and Fatah agreed on Wednesday to exchange prisoners as part of a deal still being negotiated to reconcile the bitterly divided groups, a senior Hamas official said in Cairo. The two sides met in Cairo for talks mediated by Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. Wednesday's session focused on the release of detainees and ending attacks in the media against each other. Starting on Thursday, the sides are to confront more challenging issues such as holding elections and sharing power. Leading Hamas figure Izzat Rashaq, briefing reporters on progress Wednesday night, said a prisoner swap had been agreed. In a goodwill gesture, Fatah went ahead and released 42 Hamas detainees in the West Bank and promised to release more. "There are promises from Fatah that they will release a large number of prisoners, but we hope that all of the prisoners will be released," Rashaq said. Speaking earlier in the day, Nabil Shaath, a top aid to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, said the sides also agreed to immediately stop all media attacks against each other. Senior PA negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Wednesday that an interim government was needed "to shoulder the responsibilities of reconstructing Gaza, opening the passages [between Israel and the Gaza Strip] and carrying out the presidential and legislative elections no later than the end of 2009." Without the formation of a national-unity government, the challenging task of reconstructing the war-torn Gaza Strip following Israel's three-week military offensive "will be very difficult," Erekat told The Jerusalem Post. Palestinian divisions have raised questions from the international donor community about who will receive the funds and carry out reconstruction in the Hamas-controlled coastal territory. A power-sharing arrangement would encourage Israel and Egypt to open up their border crossings with Gaza and lift the blockade, which is considered essential to allow in materials needed for reconstruction. The Strip has been under a tight blockade since June 2007, when Hamas routed forces loyal to Abbas. On Wednesday, the rival Palestinian governments - the US-backed PA in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas in Gaza - presented competing plans for rebuilding war-ravaged Gaza, each seeking roughly $2.8 billion in foreign aid. The PA believes it can raise the full amount at an international pledging conference for Gaza in the Sinai resort of Sharm e-Sheikh on Monday. Saudi Arabia has already promised $1b. and the US is expected to contribute about $900 million. High-level representatives from some 80 donor countries are to attend. "We need a government that can oversee the reconstruction, implement a plan and work with the international community to fulfill this goal," Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council's political committee, told the Post. Fatah officials are seeking a government that will meet international acceptance, adheres to the program of the PLO, adheres to the peace process and respects previously signed agreements. "We want a government of reconciliation not a government of confrontation," Abdullah said. "We want this government to be able to lift the siege, to open the crossings and to look after the daily lives of the Palestinians." Meanwhile on Wednesday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Egypt was now focusing on Palestinian reconciliation as its top priority, rather than the negotiations on a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas. "We decided perhaps to change our priorities," he said in a press conference. "The first priority was the tahadiyeh, followed by the reconciliation, followed by the reconstruction conference, followed by the process of launching the peace efforts again. Today, we are concentrating on the reconciliation, but the cease-fire and the exchange of prisoners is not far from Egyptian efforts."