x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Hamas accepts election monitors in Gaza Strip

A substantial obstacle to repairing relations between Hamas and Fatah appears to have been cleared with the arrival of Palestinian election officials to the Gaza Strip.

JERUSALEM // A substantial obstacle to repairing relations between Hamas and Fatah appears to have been cleared with the arrival of Palestinian election officials to the Gaza Strip.

The Islamist group on Monday lifted a long-standing ban on the Central Elections Commission (Cec) operating in Gaza, granting its officials permission to begin preparing the territory's 1.7 million residents for general elections.

The decision allows the rival Palestinian factions to breathe life into the ailing reconciliation pact they signed more than a year ago in Cairo.

"Hamas has agreed to let the Cec start working throughout Gaza," Hanna Nasser, Cec's chairman, said on Monday during a news conference in Gaza with Hamas's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh.

The success of these efforts partly hinges on whether election officials can update Gaza's voter registry, which has not been done since Hamas violently took control of the territory in 2007. Cec officials say such an update could be done in six weeks.

Its success also depends on the formation of an interim government that was to have started Monday when both side met in Cairo. Representatives from both sides did indeed begin deliberations on Monday, Reuters reported, although it did not provide details.

The news agency also quoted an unnamed source saying that Fatah's chairman and Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, would meet with Khaled Meshaal, Hamas's leader, next week "to finalise the formation of the government and hopefully announce it".

Under an accord reached on May 20, the factions agreed to choose a caretaker cabinet of politically unaffiliated technocrats to administer affairs in Gaza, controlled by Hamas, and the Fatah-administered West Bank.

Presidential and parliamentary elections would be held in six months.

It is still unclear what responsibilities such a caretaker government would have. It's also questionable whether Hamas and Fatah can reconcile their markedly different political orientations under this interim arrangement.

Fatah, backed by the United States and Europe, has recognised Israel and has engaged in peace negotiations with it for two decades. Hamas refuses to recognise Israel. The US, along with Europe, classifies the Islamist group as a terrorist organisation because of its history of attacking Israelis.

Israeli opposition to the reconciliation pact has been substantial, although Israel did not have any immediate reaction to Monday's announcement. This and a combination of bickering and political jockeying between the two factions are blamed for their reconciliation's lacklustre implementation.

The May 20 agreement seems to take a middle ground in terms of making the reconciliation accord more palatable to critics by making Mr Abbas prime minister of the interim government. He would also retain his presidential and factional duties. He is seen as a moderate who can woo western support.

Hardline leaders in Hamas objected to the idea of Mr Abbas wearing two hats when the idea was broached during a February meeting in Doha between the Palestinian president and Hamas's leader, Mr Meshaal.

But analysts say Mr Meshaal has shored up his power within the group with the political and financial backing of Qatar and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Although he announced he would not stand for re-election, Mr Meshaal is widely believed to have been asked to serve another term as Hamas's leader.


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