Hamas irons out dispute over Palestinian unity

February 22, 2012 - 2:55 PM

CAIRO (AP) — The leadership of the Islamic militant Hamas on Wednesday settled internal disagreements and approved a unity deal with its political rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a senior official said.

Hamas' political bureau, the group's top decision-making body, met in Cairo and signed off on the deal after more than 12 hours of talks over two days, said Izzat al-Rishq, an aide to Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal.

Since 2007, the rivals have run separate governments — Abbas in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. An agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, between Mashaal and Abbas on Feb. 6 envisions Abbas heading an interim unity government ahead of general elections in the Palestinian territories.

Hamas leaders in Gaza, who have most to lose from the unity deal, had objected to relinquishing power to Abbas. The organization has employed tens of thousands in official posts inside the territory who now face integration into larger Palestinian bodies that might be headed by Abbas loyalists.

While the deal might still face opposition from the Hamas rank-and-file, Rishq suggested that the movement's leaders are now on board.

"The meeting decided to fully implement the reconciliation agreement and the Doha declaration," al-Rishq said. "It puts an end to the debate and discussions over Hamas' position concerning the Doha agreement and puts an end to what seemed to be disagreement within Hamas."

Abbas and Mashaal met later Wednesday in Cairo to discuss the next steps in the deal, including the formation of an interim government that is to be made up of politically independent technocrats. Such a composition is meant to lower the profile of Hamas, shunned by the West as a terror organization.

A Hamas-run TV station in Gaza quoted Mashaal as saying the meeting was positive and that he and Abbas are moving in the right direction for the good of the Palestinians.

Abbas enjoys the support of the U.S. and European countries, but it remains unclear how much he would lose if reconciliation with Hamas moves forward.

Israel and the international community have said they will not deal with Hamas unless it renounces violence and recognizes Israel. By forming an alliance with Hamas, Abbas risks losing hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid, though Palestinian officials hope that signals of moderation from Hamas will make the new government acceptable to the West.

The Palestinian split broke open in 2007 after Hamas wrested Gaza from Abbas by force.

Reconciliation was made possible, in part, by a narrowing of the ideological rift between the two sides.

Mashaal, although not formally renouncing violence, has embraced the idea of "popular protests" against Israeli occupation as a gesture to Abbas. And while Hamas has long opposed Abbas' talks with Israel on the terms of a Palestinian state, Abbas now seems to have given up hope he can reach a deal with the current rightist Israeli government.

Al-Rishq noted the venue for the meeting of the 15-member political bureau was Cairo. He said the choice of the Egyptian capital was a sign of the changes in the region.

The Hamas leadership had long been based in Syria, but has been trying to distance itself from Syrian President Bashar Assad's brutal crackdown on regime opponents. Hamas retains a presence in Syria, but some of its leaders have relocated, while others have been making more frequent visits to Arab capitals.

And while Syria's regional isolation increases, that of Hamas has lessened with the political rise of its parent movement, the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, in the wake of the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring. This has made Hamas less dependent on longtime patrons Iran and Syria.