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Fatah and Hamas set deadline to reconcile

Rival Palestinian factions agree to timetable beginning at end of month for accord after talks in Cairo.

Hamas and Fatah set a deadline yesterday to begin implementing their long-delayed reconciliation accord.

Delegations from the rival Palestinian factions met in Cairo and agreed a timetable that starts at the end of this month, said Azzam Al Ahmed, Fatah's chief negotiator.

Talks will also resume on forming a non-partisan interim transitional government ahead of elections.

The rivals signed the accord in May 2011 but its implementation has been stymied repeatedly by bickering, and opposition from Israel and the United States.

Fatah and Hamas were "in agreement on the mechanisms and timetable to end the division, the most important being the resumption of operations by the Central Election Commission in the Gaza Strip on the 30th of the month at the latest and afterwards in the West Bank", Mr Al Ahmed said yesterday.

They also agreed to a session on February 9 of the provisional governing body of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, with the task of bringing Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the organisation.

It is still unclear whether the two factions have overcome other stumbling blocks to fulfilling the terms of their agreement, such as merging their security forces.

Bad blood has lingered since Hamas seized control of Gaza from Fatah in 2007. The coastal enclave has since been politically severed from the Fatah-run West Bank, where the security forces of the president, Mahmoud Abbas, have coordinated with Israel to arrest members of the Islamist group.

Hamas-Fatah negotiators had been expected to reach an agreement for furthering reconciliation on Wednesday, but it was delayed for what Mr Al Ahmed said were "technical reasons".

Al Quds Al Arabi, a London-based newspaper, this week reported a dispute between Fatah officials demanding the disbanding of Hamas's armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, and Hamas officials who strenuously oppose disbandment.

Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terrorist organisation, which complicates attempts to reconcile with Fatah, which relies on Washington's financial support.

It is also unclear whether Hamas officials in Gaza will accept sharing power with Fatah there, in part because of their entrenched business interests and heightened friction with the group's leadership in exile.

They have vociferously opposed reconciliation deals brokered by Khaled Meshaal, the group's leader in exile in Qatar. He oversaw the dismantling of the group's headquarters in Damascus in 2011, but tension with leaders in Gaza has since grown.

When Mr Meshaal signed a second reconciliation pact with Mr Abbas in February last year to help to revive the initial accord, officials in Gaza accused Mr Meshaal of acting unilaterally.

However, he met Mr Abbas again last week in the Egyptian capital, setting into motion yesterday's agreement.

Both leaders have expressed renewed interest in a rapprochement, partly because of prodding by Egypt's president, Mohammed Morsi, a proponent of Hamas-Fatah unity. Palestinian demands for unity also have grown since Israel's eight-day war on the Gaza Strip last year and the Palestinian upgrade in the United Nations to non-member observer state.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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