The leaders of Fatah and Hamas met for the first time in six months on Thursday and hailed progress toward ending Palestinian divisions that has led to separate governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but there was no sign of a breakthrough.
The last meeting between President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Cairo in May yielded an agreement aimed at reuniting the Palestinian territories under a single government that would oversee new elections set for May 2012. There has been no progress towards implementation since then, according to Reuters.
There was little indication as to whether they had made any concrete progress in resolving some of the disputed issues which have blocked implementation of a reconciliation agreement signed six months ago.
Speaking to reporters after several hours of talks, the two leaders said they had managed to iron out their differences and turn a new page in their strained relationship.
Abbas, in comments carried by the Palestinian news agency WAFA, said there were “no differences between us now.
“We want to assure our people and the Arab and Islamic world that we have turned a major new and real page in partnership on everything to do with the Palestinian nation,” Meshaal said, according to AFP.
“There are no more differences between us now,” added Abbas, who heads the Fatah movement. “We have agreed to work as partners with joint responsibility.”
Hamas has run the Gaza Strip since 2007. Since then, the Iran- and Syria-backed group has built its own government and security forces, complicating any attempt at reuniting Gaza with the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
The leaders spoke after two hours of face-to-face talks in Cairo, the first since they inked the reconciliation deal in May.
During the meeting, Abbas and Meshaal approved a two-page document in which they reiterated their commitment to the main elements of the original deal, saying they would establish a joint government after elections which would be held in May.
They pledged to resolve the issue of political prisoners held by each side “within days” and said they would put together a temporary cabinet of independents, which would be agreed on by the factions at a meeting next month.
“There will be a meeting in Cairo on Dec. 20 of the PLO leadership and that of all the Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to restructure the leadership and the various bodies of the PLO,” Damascus-based Hamas leader Izzat al-Rishq said.
Two days later, the 13 factions who signed the May agreement would meet “to form a new government which will organize the elections,” he said.
Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed told AFP the talks had focused on terms of the unity agreement and on how it should be implemented, and said the two leaders had also discussed “the question of a truce in the West Bank and Gaza with Israel, and the question of popular resistance.”
After a summer of skepticism over prospects for a real rapprochement between Abbas’s secular Fatah movement and its Islamist rival Hamas, a new optimism has emerged in recent weeks.
Hamas and Fatah, which respectively control the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, have long been political rivals, but tensions spilled over into deadly violence in 2007 with Hamas forces eventually routing their Fatah rivals and taking control of the Gaza Strip.
They signed a surprise agreement in May which called for the immediate formation of an interim government to pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections within a year.
But it has yet to be implemented with the two sides bickering over the composition of the caretaker government and, in particular, who will head it.
The deal has been criticized by Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday saying he hoped Abbas “would stop the reconciliation process with Hamas.”
The accord has also been received with caution in Washington and the European Union, prompting Rishq to accuse both of seeking to perpetuate Palestinian political division.
Both Washington and Brussels have said they will not work with a government that includes Hamas unless the Islamists recognize Israel, renounce violence and agree to abide by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
“Unfortunately the Americans and Europeans have taken negative positions on the meeting between the brothers Meshaal and Abbas,” Rishq said.
“This position is the result of their desire for the continuation of the Palestinian division so they can continue to impose their dictates on the Palestinian people.”
On Wednesday, the EU’s acting representative to the Palestinian territories said he had “very low expectations” that the meeting would break the deadlock in implementing the unity deal.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, around 200 people gathered to show support for the talks, chanting: “Those who are meeting in Cairo should bring back unity.”
“This is the start of the participation of Hamas in the PLO,” said Hany al-Masri, a Palestinian political commentator based in Ramallah who has been involved in efforts to foster reconciliation. “It’s not the end of the road, but it’s a step.”