Egyptian ceremony celebrates Fatah-Hamas unity pact

McClatchy NewspapersMay 4, 2011 

CAIRO — Thousands of Palestinians rejoiced Wednesday as members of the rival Fatah and Hamas factions formalized their commitment to an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation pact at a ceremony in Cairo.

The power-sharing deal was designed to end a four-year rift between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and the Islamist group Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007 and which the United States considers a terrorist group.

The occasion also marked a coming-out of sorts for Egypt, whose role as a go-between in the deal signaled that the country would pursue a more independent foreign policy than it had under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the ousted president who for 30 years could be counted on to back U.S. positions. In the past month, the military-led caretaker government that's run Egypt since February has indicated it will reverse two other Mubarak-era policies by creating warmer ties with Iran and opening its Rafah border crossing with Gaza.

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who's long lived in Damascus, Syria, and the Gaza-based leader of Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Shallah, whom the FBI added to its list of most-wanted terrorists in 2006, attended the ceremony, where they exchanged pleasantries with longtime U.S. ally Abbas. The venue was the headquarters of the Egyptian intelligence service.

Under the agreement, an interim government of technocrats will govern Gaza and the West Bank until elections next year, restoring a measure of unity to the Palestinian side of the decades-old conflict with Israel.

"Our battle is with the Israeli enemy and not the Palestinian factions," Mashaal said in remarks at the ceremony. He added that Hamas would do everything necessary to "translate the text of the pact to facts on the ground."

It remains unclear whether the United States and Israel, which also considers Hamas a terrorist organization, will work with a Palestinian government that includes the group. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued an ultimatum to the more moderate Fatah: peace with Israel or reconciliation with Hamas. In his speech at the ceremony Wednesday, Abbas responded with an ultimatum of his own.

"Mr. Netanyahu, you must choose between settlements and peace," he said, referring to the continued building of new Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians envision as part of their future state.

Palestinians waving the flags of both main factions, as well as of smaller groups that agreed to the pact, cheered the agreement from Gaza. The Palestinians said that several kinks — chief among them the responsibility for security in the territories _have yet to be worked out.

Still, they said, getting the disparate factions to commit to the agreement was a good first step toward a united Palestinian voice demanding statehood and an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

"For four years we've had two governments, two security systems, and the whole system was divided," said Ibtihal el Aloul, 27, a Palestinian youth-rights activist who joined the celebrations Wednesday. "But I'm still optimistic because there are several factors to push for unity, such as the uprisings in Arab countries."

The Arab spring revolts helped push through the deal in two key ways: Fatah lost a strong backer when Mubarak resigned, and the exiled Hamas leadership in Damascus faces an uncertain future with a growing revolt against the Syrian regime.

Diplomats who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to reporters said the impetus for the deal came from Hamas, which approached senior Egyptian intelligence officers to act as mediators. The Egyptian officials quickly agreed.

"It was a true, true surprise," said a Western diplomat in Cairo who's familiar with the events. "It fell in their lap."

Palestinians who were witnessing the progress toward self-determination in other Arab countries also increased pressure on their own rulers to end the standoff and reconcile.

"It's normal that there are obstacles," said Hassan Nafaa, a Cairo-based political science professor. The Palestinians "are left with so many internal problems after years of separation, but they should learn from the lessons of what happened in Palestine and all around the region and know how to overcome these differences."

(McClatchy special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamda contributed to this article from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.)

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