CAIRO – Thousands of Palestinians rejoiced Wednesday as members of the rival Fatah and Hamas factions formalized their commitment to an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation pact at a ceremony in Cairo.
The power-sharing deal was designed to end a four-year rift between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and the Islamist group Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007 and which the United States considers a terrorist group.
The occasion also marked a coming out of sorts for Egypt, whose role as a go-between in the deal signaled that the country would pursue a more independent foreign policy than it had under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the ousted president who for 30 years could be counted on to back U.S. positions.
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who’s long lived in Damascus, Syria, and the Gaza-based leader of Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Shallah, whom the FBI added to its list of most-wanted terrorists in 2006, attended the ceremony, where they exchanged pleasantries with longtime U.S. ally Abbas.
Under the agreement, an interim government of technocrats will govern Gaza and the West Bank until elections next year, restoring a measure of unity to the Palestinian side of the decades-old conflict with Israel.
It remains unclear whether the United States and Israel, which also considers Hamas a terrorist organization, will work with a Palestinian government that includes the group. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued an ultimatum to the more moderate Fatah: peace with Israel or reconciliation with Hamas. In his speech at the ceremony Wednesday, Abbas responded with an ultimatum of his own.
“Mr. Netanyahu, you must choose between settlements and peace,” he said, referring to the continued building of new Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians envision as part of their future state.
Palestinians waving the flags of both main factions, as well as of smaller groups that agreed to the pact, cheered the agreement from Gaza. The Palestinians said that several kinks – chief among them the responsibility for security in the territories – have yet to be worked out.
Still, they said, getting the disparate factions to commit to the agreement was a good first step toward a united Palestinian voice demanding statehood and an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
The Arab spring revolts helped push through the deal in two key ways: Fatah lost a strong backer when Mubarak resigned, and the exiled Hamas leadership in Damascus faces an uncertain future with a growing revolt against the Syrian regime.