Hamas and Fatah, bitter rivals who violently split more than two years ago, appear close to a reconciliation deal that could lead to a Palestinian unity government. That would allow Palestinians to present a more unified position in peace talks with Israel, if negotiations aren't run aground by the Israeli government's vow not to talk to Hamas and Hamas's refusal to make a permanent peace with the Jewish state.
Top Hamas official Khaled Mashal told journalists in Cairo on Monday that the Islamist organization agreed "in principle" to an Egyptian proposal that reportedly calls for holding elections in the first half of next year and deploying a joint Fatah-Hamas security force in Gaza. Fatah agreed to the plan a month ago.
The Egyptians "will work on laying down a final draft for the reconciliation project in the coming few days," added Mr. Meshal, the movement's Damascus-based chief, whose statement seemed to indicate a deal was imminent.
But skeptics in both the West Bank and Gaza say that some aspects of the divide still feel insurmountable, and that implementation of such a deal is hard to fathom. Hamas members seek a bigger role in the West Bank, including "integration" into the West Bank security apparatus, which Fatah is unlikely to accept. And given their waning popularity in Gaza, they are unlikely to hold elections in the first half of 2010, says Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
"[Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas] said yes, Hamas said yes, but when it comes to implementation, I think both Hamas and Fatah will have excuses to run away from this agreement," he says. "We're still far away from ending the political divide."
Details of the deal
Hamas claims that Egypt has incorporated most of their concerns, although officials are waiting to hear back about several "clarifications."
"This optimism and this acceptance on our part came after the new Egyptian proposal incorporated all the issues of dispute and managed to solve most of them," says Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. "We are very much interested in putting an end to the separation of the two Palestinian partners. If this proposal were not satisfactory and did not meet the needs of Palestinians, we wouldn't accept it."
Though the exact specifics of the deal are being kept secret, some of its basic parameters have been leaked to various Middle East media. The deal includes a stipulation that the elections would involve some kind of hybrid system, allowing voters to chose from political party lists and as well as district representatives.
In addition to holding elections for the first time since January 2006, the Egyptian reconciliation proposal calls for the deployment a 3,000-man security force in the Gaza Strip – integrating both Hamas and Fatah forces – with Arab oversight. Also part of the proposal is a joint factional committee to coordinate between Hamas government in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. It is unclear whether this would be an interim arrangement that would end with the formation of a Palestinian unity government.
Why Hamas is unlikely to hold elections soon
Speaking on background, Hamas members told the Monitor that they also want full freedom of movement to campaign in the West Bank, which they don't believe Mr. Abbas is prepared to give. Abbas' security forces have over the past year or more arrested hundreds of Hamas activists, they say, driving most Hamas activity underground.
Hamas is also demanding that it be "integrated" into the West Bank security apparatus, which is controlled by the PA with the assistance of US Gen. Keith Dayton. That makes Prof. Abusada doubt that Hamas is realistic about reaching a compromise deal.
"Hamas is saying that there has to be a restructuring not only the Gaza Strip but in the West Bank," says Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. "They're saying the security forces there must be remade and to allow Hamas members to be in it, and this will be a big stumbling block on the way to an agreement. Neither Dayton nor the Israelis will accept it."
Moreover, he says, Hamas does not appear ready to have elections in the first half of next year, and has already been asking for a deferment.
"I don't think Hamas is ready to have elections anytime soon," says Abusada. "Hamas knows that its popularity has declined in the Palestinian street, and it won't get the 44 percent of the popular vote they won in 2006." Before agreeing to a date for elections, he says, Hamas wants to reach a major prisoner exchange deal – in return for Israel's kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit – as well as a loosening of the economic blockade on Gaza that is causing great hardships for most Gazans.
Fatah hopes Hamas 'isn't buying time'
Fatah, for its part, agreed to Egypt's proposal over a month ago. And Hamas, they charge, has been spinning its wheels and holding up progress.
"We are fed up with Hamas's procrastination. We have to get moving," complains Muheeb Awad, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah.
"If we are about to declare elections, we need time to prepare," he says. "We hope Hamas is truthful and isn't just buying time. We're very keen on reconciliation, and want our move forward."
• Safwat al-Kahlout contributed reporting from the Gaza Strip.