Hamas, Fatah meet in Cairo to try to form 'national unity' government

Officials say new US administration makes deal more of a possibility,

In the first meeting of its kind in more than two years, senior Fatah and Hamas officials met in Cairo over the weekend to discuss ways of ending the power struggle between the two parties and forming a "national unity" government. The meeting signals a change in the policy of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who until now had refused to talk to Hamas unless the movement ended its control over the Gaza Strip. A PA official in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post that the meeting was also the result of the change of government in the US. He noted that the previous administration of President George W. Bush was strongly opposed to any form of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Both Fatah and Hamas are under heavy pressure from many Palestinians and some Arab governments to end their differences and form a joint government in the aftermath of last month's massive IDF operation in the Gaza Strip. However, Abbas's latest effort to iron out his differences with Hamas are opposed by some prominent figures, such as Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top PLO representative, and former Fatah security commander Muhammad Dahlan. The crisis between Hamas and Fatah reached its peak during Operation Cast Lead, when the Islamic movement accused its rival secular faction of providing the IDF with information about the location of security installations and Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip. Fatah, for its part, accused Hamas of killing and kneecapping dozens of its members during the war. Last November, the Egyptian government called off a Palestinian "reconciliation" conference meant to patch up the differences between Fatah and Hamas. The decision was taken after Hamas announced that it would boycott the gathering in protest against the detention of hundreds of its members and supporters by Abbas's security forces in the West Bank. The Egyptians are now planning to bring the two sides together through a similar conference that is due to be held in Cairo later this month. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said his movement has received an invitation from the Egyptians to attend a conference for all the Palestinian factions on February 22. He said that Hamas has accepted the invitation. However, Barhoum added that Hamas would again boycott the conference if Abbas did not release all the "political detainees" in the West Bank. At the talks in Cairo over the weekend, Fatah and Hamas agreed to end the "media war" between the two parties. They also agreed to study ways of ending the ongoing detention of Hamas and Fatah members and supporters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The two parties' representatives announced that they would continue to hold "reconciliation" talks in the future both inside the Palestinian territories and abroad. "The departure of the Bush administration has paved the way for Palestinian national reconciliation," the PA official said. "In the past, Bush and [former US Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice were totally opposed to talks between Fatah and Hamas." The Fatah delegation to the Cairo talks was headed by former PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei, while the Hamas team was led by Musa Abu Marzouk, the deputy head of the Hamas "political bureau." The two men are seen as potential successors to Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, respectively. Both Qurei and Abu Marzouk described the results of the talks as "positive" and said they had achieved progress toward ending the rift between Fatah and Hamas. The talks were also attended by former PA minister Nabil Sha'ath, a top Fatah official, and Mahmoud Zahar, the top Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip. Fatah and Hamas sources said that the Egyptians presented the two sides with a plan aimed at ending the power struggle. The plan, the sources added, calls for the formation of a Fatah-Hamas government, the release of all "political" detainees held by the two parties, holding parliamentary and presidential elections, reforming the PLO and reconstructing the Palestinian security forces. According to the sources, the two parties have already reached an agreement in principle to form a joint government that would serve for two years. The proposed government, which would be headed by current PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and would include several Hamas ministers, would be entrusted with preparing for new elections and solving all problems between the two sides ahead of the vote.