Under mounting international pressure to free a kidnapped Israeli soldier, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh closed ranks Tuesday by concluding a power-sharing agreement aimed at ending months of violent Hamas-Fatah fighting and laying down principles for talks with Israel.
The pact between Mr. Abbas and Mr. Haniyeh serves to prop up the political rivals at a time when a hostage standoff threatens an Israeli army retaliatory invasion of Gaza.
"Now it seems they're in the same boat because they have a serious threat to their political existence," says Shaul Mishal, a Tel Aviv University political science professor who has authored a book on Hamas. "They need badly to maintain their status within the Palestinian public. [Sunday's kidnapping of an Israeli soldier] shows their weakness, and they have no real control. People do what they want, or they listen to someone else – not the government."
Osama Hamdan, a Hamas official in Lebanon close to the organization's hard-line leadership in Damascus, criticized Abbas Tuesday for helping Israel search for the kidnapped Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who is believed to be held in southern Gaza, the Associated Press reported. Instead, the official continued, Palestinians should kidnap more Israelis to use as bargaining chips.
Meanwhile, Israel's military is becoming increasingly convinced that an Israeli settler also missing since Sunday has been kidnapped, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Tuesday.
In Gaza City, one Palestinian was killed Tuesday and several others were injured from a missile fired on a car traveling near Abbas's office, Israel Radio reported. Israel's military denied involvement in the attack.
The Abbas-Haniyeh agreement is based on a document drafted by a coalition of jailed Palestinian militant leaders that calls for Hamas's integration into the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Because the PLO is the signatory to peace accords with Israel, the bargain is seen as a major departure for Hamas, which has opposed peace negotiations and the idea of Israeli and Palestinian states coexisting alongside one another.
The document also calls for a unity government with Fatah, another concession by the Islamic militants who would be admitting they are unable to govern without the help of their bitter adversaries.
A commitment limiting Palestinian attacks to territories conquered by the Jewish state in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war has been seen as yet another Hamas concession, but in tolerating attacks by Palestinian militia groups it marks a compromise on Abbas's vocal criticism of the militarized uprising.
And new language in the document seems to give Hamas leeway on which to oppose a two-state solution in the future, said Reuters.
Haniyeh and Abbas were reported to have been on the verge of concluding the agreement Saturday night just hours before a detachment of Palestinian militants raided Israeli military positions near Gaza by tunneling under the border. Two Israeli soldiers and two Palestinian militants were killed in an attack seen by many as an attempt by Hamas's hard-line leadership to undermine the accord.
Fatah leaders have said that this accord with Hamas isn't far reaching enough to form the foundation for peace talks with Israel, but that it is instead aimed to end weeks of infighting that have claimed the lives of 20 Palestinians and spurred new anarchy in the West Bank and Gaza.
"It is a national program. Palestinians will not negotiate with Israel on this basis," says Jamal Nazzal, a Fatah spokesman. "The advantage of it is that Palestinians will not block the way of each other anymore."
But it remains to be seen whether Hamas and Fatah field commanders will honor the commitment. One commander from the Fatah-affiliated Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade described the agreement as more of a temporary cease-fire postponing an inevitable civil war.
Palestinians from Fatah have complained of a "two-headed" government pulling in opposite directions. While President Abbas has called on the newly elected Hamas politicians to join peace talks with Israel, the Islamic militants have remained steadfast in their opposition to recognize the Jewish state or forswear military attacks on Israel.
The US and the European Union both consider Hamas a terrorist group for its endorsement of suicide bombings against Israel, and have led an international aid boycott of the Palestinian Authority (PA). That has emptied government coffers and compounded economic hardship.
For Hamas's Haniyeh, the agreement with Abbas could potentially bolster his credentials abroad after most governments shunned Hamas. It also props him up amid tension with Hamas hard-liner Khaled Meshal in Damascus.
"People usually unify at the times of crisis," says Ghassan Khatib, a former Labor Minister under Abbas. "I think the prime minister particularly is in need of the president nowadays, especially given that there seems to be difficulties inside of Hamas."
The concessions won by Abbas, on the other hand, gives him ammunition to counter critics who have described him as a lame duck after Hamas's electoral victory, analysts say.
Mr. Khatib continues, "The president has always been interested in such an agreement, because this will make him stronger internally and externally." Fatah officials told Reuters that a signing ceremony was planned for Tuesday evening on the accord.
Many have criticized the agreement for language so vague as to allow radically divergent interpretations. While saying he supported the agreement, Hamas legislator Wael Husseini insisted that the accord doesn't mark a departure from Hamas's traditional opposition to Israel's existence.
"We will never recognize the legitimacy of Israel inside the 1948 borders," he says, referring to the dimensions of the Jewish state accepted by most of the international community. "That doesn't mean we don't recognize the existence of the Israelis. We recognize the existence of Israel but not on our land. We don't give Israel anything in return for withdrawal."
Meanwhile, the militants holding Corporal Shalit issued their first demands Monday. The groups, which included Hamas's military wing and two offshoots of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), said Israel should release all jailed Palestinian women and children under 18 in return for information about Shalit. Officials estimate there are 500 such prisoners.
"The soldier is in a secure place that the Zionists cannot reach," PRC spokesman Mohammed Abdel Al said. It was the first acknowledgment by militants that Shalit was still alive.
About 3,000 Israeli troops, along with tanks and armored vehicles, have massed along Israel's border with Gaza. Commanders said they were awaiting orders.
• Wire material contributed to this report.