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Rivals Hamas, Fatah reach preliminary deal on governing Gaza

Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, center right, and Hamas’ representative, Saleh al-Arouri, center left, sign a reconciliation agreement during a news conference at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (Nariman El-Mofty / Associated Press)
Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, center right, and Hamas’ representative, Saleh al-Arouri, center left, sign a reconciliation agreement during a news conference at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (Nariman El-Mofty / Associated Press)
By Hamza Hendawi and Fares Akram Associated Press

CAIRO – Rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah have reached a preliminary, partial agreement that could pave the way for President Mahmoud Abbas to resume governing the Gaza Strip a decade after Hamas overran the territory, officials said Thursday.

Details of the deal were announced at a news conference in Cairo, where the negotiators were meeting. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement that the deal was reached under “generous Egyptian auspices,” without elaborating.

A senior Palestinian official said Abbas, the leader of Fatah, might visit Gaza in the coming weeks, depending on the successful implementation of the agreement. The official spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the formal announcement.

The Western-backed Abbas hasn’t set foot in Gaza since 2007, when the Islamic militant Hamas, his main ideological rival, seized the territory after days of factional street battles. The Hamas takeover, which came a year after the group defeated Fatah in Palestinian parliamentary elections, left Abbas with autonomous enclaves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Over the past decade, each side deepened control over its territory, making it increasingly difficult to forge compromises, and repeated attempts at reconciliation failed.

Under the emerging agreement, Hamas would hand over responsibilities of governing Gaza to the West Bank-based government of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.

Azzam al-Ahmad, head of the Fatah delegation, said Abbas’ Palestinian Authority would assume control of the crossing points between Gaza and Israel by Nov. 1. He said Abbas’ presidential guard would assume control of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, but did not specify a timetable.

Egypt has kept the Rafah border crossing closed for most of the last decade. Before the Hamas takeover, Abbas’ presidential guard administered the crossing under EU monitoring.

“The Rafah crossing needs some measures to improve and renovate the buildings in a way that is worthy of Egypt and the Palestinian people so as it can operate smoothly,” al-Ahmad said during the announcement of the deal.

A senior Hamas official, who spoke earlier on condition of anonymity pending the formal announcement, said both sides agreed that European monitors could be posted at the crossing, a measure that might assuage Israeli concerns about weapons smuggling.

A permanent opening of the Rafah crossing would mean an end to the crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade imposed on Gaza after the Hamas takeover, which prevents free trade and bars the vast majority of Gaza’s 2 million people from leaving the territory.

Only one of Gaza’s four commercial crossings to Israel, Kerem Shalom, is currently operating, down from four before 2007. A small number of people, mainly medical patients, business people and aid workers, use the Erez crossing to enter Israel, usually bound for the West Bank.

Hamas has indirectly run the Palestinian side of Kerem Shalom commercial crossing, collecting taxes and fees on imports. At Erez, Hamas maintained security control from a checkpoint near the crossing, while the Palestinian Authority had a small office to coordinate with the Israeli side.

Officials close to the talks said the sides agreed to set up committees to work out other details. In the past, such mechanisms quickly led to deadlock.

One committee would have four months to determine who among thousands of Hamas civil servants would be able to join the new government. Another committee would merge 3,000 Palestinian Authority loyalists into Gaza’s Hamas-run police force.

Saleh al-Arouri, the head of the Hamas delegation in Cairo, said “we in Hamas are determined, serious and sincere this time and every time to end the division.”

“We have adopted the strategy of one step at a time so that the reconciliation will succeed,” he added.

Key issues were not addressed in the Cairo talks.

A major sticking point has been the Hamas military wing and its arsenal, which Hamas has said is not up for discussion. Hamas officials have assured the Fatah negotiators that the military wing would maintain a low profile as part of any deal. It’s not clear if this will satisfy Abbas, or if the dispute will re-emerge later on.

The Hamas official said Hamas, Fatah and smaller Palestinian factions would meet next month to discuss other issues related to reconciliation, including holding long-overdue parliamentary and presidential elections. Hamas and Fatah would return to Cairo in early December to assess implementation of the agreement, the official said.

Struggling with the fallout from the border blockade, Hamas has found it increasingly difficult to govern or provide basic services, such as electricity.

The 82-year-old Abbas, meanwhile, might be thinking about his legacy. The political split has been a major stain on his rule, and there have been no negotiations with Israel since the peace process last collapsed in 2014.

Abbas heads the political camp that seeks to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 war.

Hamas suggested in a new political manifesto earlier this year that it might consider a state in pre-1967 lines as an interim option, but also endorses an Islamic state in historic Palestine, including what is now Israel. The group refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel.

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