Egyptian-brokered talks between the Palestinians' two leading political factions, Fatah and Hamas, are close to finalising the terms of a national reconciliation agreement. Whether such an agreement will succeed in bridging what has become a huge political divide remains to be seen. "Hamas has announced that it will accept an Egyptian proposal for ending its bitter power struggle with Fatah, renewing hopes for an end to political deadlock and intra-Palestinian violence and pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections next year," The National reported. "Khaled Meshaal, Hamas's political leader, sounded optimistic as he announced that Hamas would sign the Egyptian reconciliation accord with Fatah and other Palestinian factions in October." The Christian Science Monitor said: "Meshaal told journalists in Cairo on Monday that the Islamist organisation 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 Meshaal, the movement's Damascus-based chief, whose statement seemed to indicate a deal was imminent. "But sceptics 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.' " Time magazine said: "The fact that both parties seek democratic legitimacy is an encouraging sign. Hamas craves the opportunity to prove, as it did in the legislative elections of 2006, that it is not merely a guerrilla group operating in the shadows, but also the chosen political representative of a substantial portion of Palestinian society. And Fatah knows that it can't keep claiming to represent the Palestinian people (or even to be taken seriously as an interlocutor by Israel) when there hasn't been an election since the January 2006 poll won by Hamas. (President Abbas' term of office technically expired last January.) "Rather than resolve their differences, any Fatah-Hamas agreement will simply be to establish the rules of their ongoing political contest. Because Fatah controls the political machinery in the West Bank's major cities, it wants an electoral system based more on proportional representation, while Hamas favors the current system that elects a larger proportion of legislators by district. In 2006, that helped Hamas win a greater proportion of parliamentary seats in both Gaza and the West Bank than its share of the overall popular vote. "The sequence of events leading to elections will be even more contentious. Before it is willing to countenance elections, Hamas demands the release of many of its members held prisoner in the West Bank and the lifting of restrictions on free political activity in Abbas' fiefdom. Hamas also wants Fatah to back Egypt opening the Rafah border into Gaza, in order to ease the blockade that is preventing the rebuilding of Gaza's infrastructure destroyed by Israel's military incursion this past winter." Meanwhile, The New York Times reported: "Israel said Wednesday that it would release 20 Palestinian women from its jails in exchange for a videotape of a captured Israeli soldier that would prove that he was alive. "The soldier, Gilad Shalit, was seized by the Islamic group Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in 2006 in a cross-border raid and taken into Gaza. "The prisoner release offer, announced on Wednesday by the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was the first significant sign of progress in negotiations about him since Mr Netanyahu took office in March. "Israeli and Palestinian officials said the exchange was expected to take place on Friday. " 'Israel will receive updated and unequivocal proof of Gilad Shalit's well-being and status,' Mr Netanyahu's office said in a statement, describing the deal as a result of an Egyptian initiative meant to build confidence ahead of the 'decisive stages of negotiation' for the release of the soldier, who has been promoted to staff sergeant from corporal during his captivity. The prime minister's office added that the negotiations were 'still expected to be long and arduous'." Fox News added: "The release of a tape showing that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is alive is the first stage of a broader deal being negotiated with Israel on the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, the senior Hamas leader in Gaza said Wednesday. Dr Mahmoud Zahar also said that Hamas is close to reconciling its differences with the rival Fatah movement in the West Bank. "Zahar, a physician who is the de facto leader of the militant Islamic movement that rules Gaza, described the background of how the Shalit tape was negotiated and the broader progress on other fronts in an interview at his home in Gaza City. "He had just returned from informing the Red Cross that Hamas had provided a 'proof of life' tape to an unnamed German negotiator through whom Hamas has been negotiating indirectly with Israel. He called the exchange, to take place Friday, of the one-minute-long videotape for the release of 20 Palestinian women from different political factions and parts of the Palestinian territories 'a small symbolic deal' that proved that Shalit was alive. "A statement from the Israeli prime minister's office described the gesture as a 'confidence-building measure'. " 'This is a message to Israel that we are negotiating over a live body, not a dead body,' Zahar said."
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