CAIRO // 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. 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.
"We extend our hands and open our hearts for our brothers in Fatah," said Mr Meshaal at a press conference in Cairo on Monday. "We are ready to turn this page and open a new leaf for reconciliation, which is more important today to counter Israeli aggression." Nabil Amr, the Palestinian Authority's envoy to Egypt, said yesterday that Mr Meshaal's statements were encouraging. "But the real test will be in the coming weeks [when we see] what Hamas is willing to do to facilitate unity and live up to political and constitutional responsibilities.
"Hamas needs to be more flexible and show more awareness of the Palestinian situation and that it shouldn't miss the chance. Hamas has to focus on elections as a constitutional must, regardless of whether reconciliation is reached or not." Sufiyan Abu Zeideh, a member of Fatah's ruling Revolutionary Council, said: "I hope after two years Hamas is finally prepared to do everything possible to ensure Palestinian unity."
Sabri Sadam, another member of the Revolutionary Council and a former adviser to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said the Fatah leadership was still waiting to hear officially from the Egyptians details of Hamas's proposed amendments. Changes appeared to be minimal, he said. The Fatah Central Committee was due to discuss the developments last night, followed by a meeting of the PLO executive committee today. Mahmoud Aloul, a central committee member from Nablus, said the signs of a resolution between the two sides were "more hopeful" than for some time.
However, Mr Sadam added: "The feeling among Palestinians is that, while agreements are great, they want deeds not more words. We need to be clear about what is being delivered and the timeline for delivering it." Samir Awad, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, said both Fatah and Hamas were under huge pressure from the Palestinian public to achieve a breakthrough. "Each side needs something to show if they are to satisfy their supporters. Hamas's only openings to the outside world are through Israel or Egypt, and its connections with Israel are blocked. Hamas cannot therefore afford to upset the Egyptians."
Ghassan Khatib, the director of the Palestinian Authority's government media centre in Ramallah, said he was pessimistic. "I don't expect there will be much progress. Neither side is really willing to change its substantial positions. What we are seeing at the moment is for public consumption, with both sides wanting to appear positive." A deal next month would be the first breakthrough after seven rounds of talks. Previous negotiations brokered by Egypt failed over disagreement on issues of security, the formation of a unity government, and elections.
Egypt, the main broker between Fatah and Hamas, also wants a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas, which reconciliation between the Palestinian rivals would help facilitate. Analysts were less than glowing in their reactions to Mr Meshaal's comments. Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, said: "It's not what Meshaal said, it's what he did not say. He did not say the magic words, which are that Hamas agrees to be part of the Palestinian national provisional government respecting all international agreements and its authority is the PLO.
"Fatah and Hamas are speaking the same slogans without clarifying the terms of an agreement on what to do. They are putting the responsibility on the Egyptians." Mr Hadi said the rivals remained a "long way" from an agreement. Another Palestinian political analyst, Hani Masri, intimated that Mr Meshaal had ulterior motives in speaking positively about the Egyptian proposal. "It delays the election, postpones the unity government and allows it to continue to control Gaza for more time."
Fatah, meanwhile, has reservations about the proposal, he said, particularly the timing of the election. "There may be an agreement now between Fatah and Hamas, but it's not strong enough. It's more like a truce that cannot remain in place for a long time. "They must go back to form a unity government. Without a unity government, you cannot put an end to the split. Until now they have postponed talking about this issue and it's a fatal mistake. They postponed it because Hamas refuses to commit to the agreements between Israel and the PLO."
The Egyptian proposal concentrates on security in the Gaza Strip, freeing political prisoners held by either group, elections in June, and a joint committee that would oversee these issues. At the press conference, Mr Meshaal called on the Palestinian Authority to cease all of its security co-ordination with Israel and "return anew to resistance as the only deterrence to the Israelis" and warned "the Americans and Europeans not to misread the current calm in the Palestinian areas, as fire is still simmering under the ashes".
"As long as our land and holy places are occupied, resisting Israeli occupation remains our right," Mr Meshaal said in a response to a question by The National. "I'm not threatening anyone, I'm just warning against [using] the present calm or any settlements with Israel at our expense in the meantime," he said. Despite these statements, Mr Meshaal seemed to have become more pragmatic when he spoke about a Palestinian state within the 1967 border, rather than all of historic Palestine.
"There is no contradiction in Hamas's discourse," Mr Meshaal said. "Even to get to the 1967 border, you would need the resistance. Palestinian rights won't be regained except by resistance or international pressure, we've tried the latter, and believe that the best of American administrations either can't or are unwilling to pressure Israel. Without Egypt's October war, Israel wouldn't have left Sinai."
Emad Gad, the editor of Israeli Studies, a periodical on Israeli affairs published by the state-funded Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies, said the "Gaza war, the continuation of the blockade, [a lack of] reconstruction of Gaza have made Hamas more pragmatic and ready to play politics," Mr Gad said. "Also, Egypt became less suspicious of Hamas, as a perceived branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas as part of a Syria-Iran-Hizbollah axis that has been trying to marginalise Egypt's regional role.
"Hamas has also become more open towards the Americans and Europeans, who seem to have grown more accepting of Hamas being a part of the political game, as it has become evident that Hamas is not leaving Gaza, and Fatah won't be able to regain it," he said. email@example.com * With additional reporting by Omar Karmi in Ramallah, Jonathan Cook in Nazareth, Israel and Vita Bekker in Tel Aviv