Fatah, Hamas reach agreement in Palestinian reconciliation talks
GAZA CITY - Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah signed an agreement Thursday on ending a decade-long split following talks mediated by Egypt in Cairo, with president Mahmud Abbas calling it a "final" accord.
Under the agreement, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority is to resume full control of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip by December 1, according to a statement from Egypt's government.
Abbas welcomed the deal and said he considered it a "final agreement to end the division" -- though many details remain to be resolved and previous reconciliation attempts have repeatedly failed.
It was signed in Cairo by new Hamas deputy leader Salah al-Aruri and Azzam al-Ahmad, the head of the Fatah delegation for the talks, at the headquarters of Egypt's intelligence service, which oversaw the negotiations.
Celebrations broke out in the Gaza Strip after the announcement of the deal, with residents waving flags of Egypt, Palestine, Fatah and Hamas.
Negotiations are now expected to be held on forming a unity government, with the various Palestinian political movements invited to another meeting in Cairo on November 21.
An official from Abbas's Fatah movement said the Palestinian president was planning to soon travel to the Gaza Strip as part of the unity bid in what would be his first visit in a decade.
Sanctions taken by Abbas against Hamas-controlled Gaza will also soon be lifted, the Fatah official said.
The deal includes 3,000 members of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority's police force redeploying to Gaza, a member of the negotiating team said on condition of anonymity.
The figure is however a fraction of the more than 20,000 police officers employed separately by Hamas.
- 'End very shortly' -
Another party to the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the agreement would see Palestinian Authority forces take control of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt.
One of the key issues has been punitive measures taken by Abbas against Gaza in recent months, including reducing electricity payments that left the territory's residents with only a few hours of power a day.
"All the measures taken recently will end very shortly," Zakaria al-Agha, a senior Fatah leader in the Gaza Strip, said.
The two sides had been meeting in the Egyptian capital this week with the aim of ending the crippling decade-old split between the rival factions.
Hamas seized Gaza from Fatah in a near civil war in 2007 and the two factions have been at loggerheads ever since. Multiple previous reconciliation efforts have failed.
Egypt has been keen to improve security in the Sinai Peninsula which borders Gaza and where jihadist rebels have fought a long-running insurgency.
An Egyptian source close to the talks said intelligence chief Khaled Fawzi had followed the negotiations closely.
- Fate of armed wing -
Last month, Hamas agreed to cede civil power in Gaza to the Palestinian Authority but the fate of its vast military wing remains a significant issue for the two sides.
Islamist movement Hamas is blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union.
It has fought three wars with Israel since 2008 and the blockaded Gaza Strip has seen deteriorating humanitarian conditions.
Faced with increasing isolation and a severe electricity shortage, Hamas has reached out to Egypt for help, hoping to have the Rafah border opened.
The crossing has remained largely closed in recent years.
Egypt has also agreed to provide fuel to the Gaza Strip for electricity generation.
In return, Cairo pressed Hamas to move forward on reconciliation with Fatah.
Previous attempts at reconciliation have repeatedly failed, and many analysts are treating the latest bid with caution, waiting to see if actual change will occur on the ground.
Last week, Palestinian Authority prime minister Rami Hamdallah visited Gaza for the first time since 2015 and his ministers took formal control of government departments in the territory.
But the move was seen as mainly symbolic, with Hamas still effectively in charge in the Palestinian enclave of two million people bordered by Egypt, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea.
One of the key sticking points will be the fate of Hamas's 25,000-strong military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.
Reconciliation could pose a dilemma for international efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal since Hamas has not recognised Israel, unlike Abbas' Palestine Liberation Organisation.
An Israeli government official said on Thursday that Hamas must disarm and recognise the Jewish State under the Palestinian unity deal.
"Any reconciliation between the (Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority) and Hamas must include a commitment to international agreements and to the conditions of the Quartet, first of which is recognising Israel and demilitarising Hamas," the official said in the Israeli government's first reaction to the deal signed in Cairo.
The official was referring to the diplomatic Quartet on Middle East peace, which includes the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia.
The publicly-released parts of the agreement did not specify what would happen to Hamas' armed wing.
Hamas does not recognise Israel and has fought three wars with the Jewish state since 2008.
"As long as Hamas remains armed and as long as it calls for the destruction of Israel, Israel will consider Hamas responsible for any terror attack originating from Gaza," the official said.
He also demanded an immediate return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed by Hamas in 2014, as well as the release of two citizens believed imprisoned by the Islamists.