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What needs to be solved for Fatah-Hamas reconciliation

Fatah agreed Wednesday to an Egyptian-backed deal, but tension over the Goldstone report and deep distrust have left many skeptical.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 2009

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits the West Bank city of Jenin Tuesday. His rare public foray outside his presidential palace was an attempt to reassure Palestinians there was no truth to rumors he encouraged Israel's bombing of Gaza.

Mohamad Torokman/REUTERS


Tel Aviv

In Ramallah Wednesday, Fatah officials initialed a preliminary agreement aimed at mending the rift with Hamas, though the Islamic militants balked – a sign that the conditions for reconciliation may not have ripened.

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A powersharing deal is aimed at ending more than two years of divided rule between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza that has sapped Palestinian public morale, stymied the political system, and dimmed the prospects for achieving an agreement with Israel to establish a Palestinian state.

"The question is, if the Palestinians can't find reconciliation between ourselves, how can we reconcile with the Israelis?" asks Mohammed Dejani, a political science professor at Al Quds University. "People are fed up and tired, and there's a lot of despair."

Even though Palestinian public opinion is overwhelmingly behind a unity deal, the lingering bitterness and distrust between the groups has prevented an agreement despite several rounds of Egyptian mediation since the Hamas takeover in gaza in June 2007. The two sides are separated by a wide ideological rift, and each accuses the other of operating under the influence of foreign powers; Fatah under pressure from the US and Israel, and Hamas advised by Iran. Most recently, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's decision to postpone action on the UN-issued Goldstone report on the Gaza war sparked harsh criticism from Hamas.

Trust is most lacking on several key issues, including new elections, who controls security in the West Bank and Gaza, whether Hamas's military wing will be disarmed, and how power will be shared in the Palestinian government and the Palestine Liberation Organization – long dominated by Fatah. Khalil Shaheen, an editor of the Al Ayyam newspaper in Ramallah, says the Egyptian-brokered plan uses vague wording on some issues in an attempt to secure approval from both sides. While such an approach may lead to an agreement, it could delay reconciliation in practice and thus defer benefits for both sides.

What Hamas, Fatah would gain from reconciliation

For Hamas, an agreement could ease the international political boycott on the organization and shift pressure on Israel to end an economic blockade of the coastal strip that has largely cut off Gaza's 1.5 million residents from the rest of the world. But it is also wary of Fatah security officers returning to Gaza.

That means that any accord must involve an agreement preserving the security divide between the West Bank and Gaza until each party builds up political trust in the other side, says Professor Dejani.

"The issue is how to reconcile between two powerful movements," he says. "They aren't at a place where they have the confidence to share power equally in those areas. There is still a lot of bad blood."

Fatah, meanwhile, could lose ground to Hamas if the prospect for peace with Israel dims. Analysts say that Fatah's flirtation Wednesday with a compromise stems from low expectations about the resumption of peace talks. After being attacked for meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjmain Netanyahu in New York, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has dug in on insisting that Israel freeze settlement activity before talks. The US meanwhile, seems to have backed away from such a stance, weakening Mr. Abbas.