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Fatah, Hamas begin reconciliation talks

A key question is whether Hamas is willing to yield control of the Gaza Strip as it seeks aid to rebuild the enclave.

February 27, 2009|Noha El-Hennawy and Richard Boudreaux

CAIRO AND JERUSALEM — Spurred by the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for the war-battered Gaza Strip, the rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas began long-awaited talks Thursday aimed at restoring a power-sharing arrangement.

The talks in Cairo have the blessing of the Obama administration and could lead to a new international approach toward Hamas, the Islamic group that the U.S., like Israel and the European Union, considers a terrorist organization.

But the obstacles to reconciliation between Hamas and the secular, Western-backed Fatah appear only slightly less daunting than they were 20 months ago when factional fighting ended their short-lived unity government.

A key question to be answered as negotiations proceed in the coming weeks is how much Hamas is willing to relax its tight political control over Gaza or modify its militant stance against Israel in return for an arrangement easing the flow of reconstruction aid to the enclave's 1.5 million people.

The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority hopes to raise $2.8 billion at an international donors conference Monday in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el Sheik. About half the money would be for rebuilding homes, workplaces and infrastructure damaged during a 22-day Israeli military assault against Hamas that ended Jan. 18. The rest would be for projects in the West Bank, which Fatah controls, and other programs.

Fatah, routed from Gaza by its rival in June 2007, is eager to reassert the Palestinian Authority's presence there. Hamas is eager to receive and distribute the aid but is shunned by most of the international community.

Reconciliation would serve both groups' aims and perhaps remove a major obstacle to rebuilding Gaza: an Israeli blockade backed by Egypt that has kept the enclave's borders all but sealed since Hamas took over Gaza. Without open borders, heavy construction materials cannot enter the strip.

Egypt has pushed hard to bring Hamas and Fatah together, hoping to restore a Palestinian Authority role in policing Gaza's borders. That would enable Egypt to reopen its crossing with Gaza without violating a border control agreement with Israel.

More broadly, a rapprochement of the Palestinian rivals would help revive Egypt's shaken position as a regional power and an influential voice in the Middle East.

"We hope this meeting is the real start of a new period ending the state of division," Omar Suleiman, Egypt's intelligence chief, told delegates from Hamas, Fatah and 11 other Palestinian groups seated at a long table at his headquarters. He said Palestinians were "hanging their hopes on you" to join forces in seeking an independent state.

The formal talks are the first between Fatah and Hamas since their violent rift.

Their mutual distrust deepened during Israel's recent offensive. Hamas alleged that the Palestinian Authority ran a Gaza spy ring that fed Israel information about Hamas targets. Fatah accused Hamas of killing and wounding dozens of Fatah activists under the cover of war.

They remain fundamentally at odds over how to deal with Israel. Hamas is doctrinally committed to destroying the Jewish state, although it is prepared to accept an 18-month truce. Fatah has renounced violence, recognized Israel's right to exist and staked its hopes on peace negotiations.

Despite the divisions, delegates on both sides said they had a strong desire for a unified interim administration to oversee Gaza reconstruction and then to organize elections of a president and a parliament for the West Bank and Gaza.

"There is an agreement on a government of national unity," Azzam Ahmed, a Fatah official, said at a news conference in Cairo. He said its makeup would be decided by one of five committees set up Thursday.

Other committees were charged with organizing elections, restructuring the security services, merging Hamas into the Fatah-run Palestine Liberation Organization, and arranging prisoner exchanges and other goodwill gestures.

The makeup of security services could prove to be a sticking point, given the history of bad blood between Fatah's forces and the Hamas armed services that now keep a tight lid on opposition activity in Gaza.

The United States and Israel are watching the talks closely. George J. Mitchell, President Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, has voiced support for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, a break with U.S. policy during the Bush administration.

But Israel's prime minister-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, opposes dealing with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

On Thursday, Mitchell met with Netanyahu and officials of Israel's departing government during his second trip to the region in a month to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. Netanyahu, who leads the right-wing Likud party, said that the meeting was "positive and productive" and that the two still "have a lot to talk about." Mitchell issued no statement.

The U.S. envoy was to meet today with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other members of his Fatah-led government.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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El-Hennawy is in The Times' Cairo Bureau.

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