By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Officials from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction and the rival Islamist Hamas group met in Gaza on Tuesday to discuss the make-up of a unity government they hope will end a seven-year schism.
Officials from the two groups said they planned to propose non-politically affiliated candidates for seats in a unity cabinet which will be tasked with preparing presidential and parliamentary elections after six months.
Azzam Al-Ahmed, the senior Fatah official sent by Western-backed Abbas from the West Bank, led the talks with Hamas's delegation, headed by exiled Islamist leader Moussa Abu Marzouk.
Abbas announced plans for a unity government as a step towards Palestinian elections on April 23. Many past attempts to heal the rift between Fatah, that dominates the Palestinian Authority-run West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, have failed.
Palestinian sources in Ramallah, the seat of Abbas's administration, said they wanted the list of names to be ready by Thursday when he meets U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in London to discuss the stalled peace talks with Israel.
Days after Abbas made the announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged him to "tear up" his pact with Hamas, saying Israel would not take part in peace talks with a Palestinian government backed by the Islamist group.
Israel suspended the talks the day after Abbas's unexpected pact with Hamas, which it regards as a terrorist group, a step that appeared to be the final nail in the coffin of the U.S.-sponsored negotiations.
The United States has said any Palestinian government must recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by peace accords but it was unclear whether U.S. financial aid to the Palestinian Authority would continue once Hamas joins the administration.
According to U.S. law, aid to the Palestinians may not benefit Hamas, which Washington regards as a terrorist group.
Abbas said the intended government would adopt his own peace policies but Islamist partners said new ministers would carry no political views.
The two sides have failed in seven years to heal a rift that worsened after Hamas took control of Gaza following a brief civil war in 2007, a year after the Islamist faction beat Fatah in a parliamentary election.
The unity deal has revived hopes by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank of bringing an end to the divisions that have ripped apart Palestinian social fabric and dented their chances for establishing a state.
Abbas and his party want to form that state in the occupied West Bank where Israel, which captured the territory in 1967, exercises overall military control, and the Gaza Strip, with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital.
Hamas leaders have said in the past that the movement could accommodate Israel, although the Islamist group's 1988 founding charter calls for Israel's destruction and it maintains that it will not officially recognize Israel.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Editing by Ori Lewis and Janet Lawence)