DAMASCUS // Efforts to form a unified Palestinian government look set to collapse this week, with apparently irreconcilable differences still separating Hamas from Fatah. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, who remains president of the Palestinian Authority despite his term of office having expired, is reportedly planning to ask his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, to form a new administration in the coming days.
If this happens it will exclude Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that controls the Gaza Strip, and effectively undermine upcoming talks designed to bring about a coalition government. Talal Nasser, spokesman at Hamas's Damascus headquarters, said the involvement of Mr Fayyad was unacceptable. "There are some points we agree with Fatah on, but the main points we disagree," he said in an interview. "For example we cannot accept a re-establishment of the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organisation] without it being restructured, we want it restructured so it is not under Mahmoud Abbas's control.
"They [Fatah] also still want to nominate Salam Fayyad to be prime minister. He is someone Hamas will never accept, he strengthens divisions." Mr Fayyad stepped down as Palestinian prime minister in March and remains a highly controversial figure. Hamas would not recognise any authority under his command and would instead set up an independent Hamas-run administration in the Gaza Strip. The PLO is also a controversial subject. Still viewed by the United Nations and the Arab League as the official representatives of the Palestinian people, it excludes Hamas despite the movement's popular support and significant role in Palestinian politics.
Just how wide, deeply rooted and personal the gap dividing the Palestinian blocs remains was starkly underlined by Mr Nasser. "Hamas will never ever be with Mahmoud Abbas, we don't trust him, we feel he is an Israeli and servant to the US administration," he said. "We are forced to join ranks [with Fatah] to shift the suffering from the Palestinian people. But Mahmoud Abbas is accepted by the US, Israel and some regional countries. So we do not trust this man."
Mr Nasser also accused Fatah of waging war on Hamas and of attempting to murder Hamid al Beitawi, Hamas's representative in Nablus, last month. "The security apparatus of Mahmoud Abbas continues to arrest, abuse and kill members of the resistance [Hamas] in the West Bank, and they tried to assassinate Sheikh Beitawi," he said. In the aftermath of the 2009 Gaza war, Fatah and Hamas agreed to hold talks aimed at forming a national unity government and speeding reconstruction of the devastated Gaza Strip. Israeli forces killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and destroyed civilian infrastructure in the assault.
Four rounds of subsequent negotiations, mediated by Egypt, have been held in Cairo largely without result. The next round is scheduled to begin in the Egyptian capital on May 16. "If they continue like this, they [the talks] could last for years," Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide to Mr Abbas, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. He said that while the next set of talks would take place as planned, Mr Abbas would already have asked Salam Fayyad to establish a government.
Hamas, considered a terrorist organisation by the US and Europe, insists it has engaged in the talks in good faith, and that it has reached agreements with western-backed Fatah on some matters, including to hold parliamentary and presidential elections by Jan 2010 and to form a new government based on the poll results. Elections were originally scheduled to have taken place in January, but were postponed by Mr Abbas, who unilaterally extended his presidential term for another 12 months.
Hamas and Fatah, the two main Palestinian political groups, have been in a state of de facto civil war since Hamas's 2006 election victory in the Gaza Strip, which ended years of a Fatah monopoly over power. That change in status quo soon led to fighting between the newly elected officials and the Fatah-dominated security services, loyal to Mr Abbas. In the summer of 2007, Hamas forcibly seized full control of a blockaded Gaza Strip while the West Bank remained in Fatah hands, cementing a deep political rift between the two geographically divided territories that are supposed to form the basis of a Palestinian state.
The failure of ongoing reconciliation talks in part hinges on Fatah's insistence that Hamas recognises Israel, renounces violence and endorses existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr Nasser said such clauses reflected US interference and accused the Americans of undermining negotiations. "We agree on the need to have the talks," he said. "But when the Americans put preconditions on us, that is not constructive. Hillary Clinton [the US secretary of state] said she could not accept any Palestinian settlement without Hamas recognising Israel. This type of foreign intervention only deepens the gap between us and Fatah."
Despite President Barack Obama's promise to work towards a Middle East peace deal, Hamas remains sceptical of US motives and goals in the region, insisting America has consistently failed to act as an impartial broker, preferring to follow a pro-Israel line. The election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister has further undermined hopes for peace, Mr Nasser said, referring to the new Israeli administration as one that "only wanted and only understood war".
Mr Netanyahu has indicated his administration has little interest in pursuing the two-state solution advocated by the international community and recently - if perhaps tentatively - endorsed by The Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal in an interview with The New York Times. However, Mr Nasser said he sensed a thawing in European attitudes towards Hamas since the Gaza conflict that could help the peace process.
"The Europeans are still undecided, they are unbalanced," he said. "They haven't decided if they should fully support Palestinian rights or not but they see that Israel crossed a line with its actions in Gaza. "We feel sorry that Hamas leaders have met with some European officials behind closed doors, but that these things are never talked about in public." He declined to say which governments had made contact with Hamas, citing confidentiality agreements, although he said British and US officials had not held any meetings with them.
"We cannot name the countries, they asked not to name them and we gave them our word," he said. "It is more than one country and they are members of the European Union. firstname.lastname@example.org