CAIRO (AP) — A Hamas and a Fatah official met in Cairo on Monday ahead of the start of reconciliation talks between the rival Palestinian factions this week in the Egyptian capital, an official told The Associated Press.
The meeting was the first in what is to be a week of key negotiations, including a round of talks with Israel on how to cement the Aug. 26 truce that ended a 50-day war in Gaza this summer and on lifting the blockade on the narrow Mediterranean coastal strip.
An Egyptian security official said Hamas' second-in-command Musa Abu Marzouk and senior Fatah leader Azzam al-Ahmad held preliminary talks soon after their arrival in the Egyptian capital on Monday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
No details emerged from the meeting, but Fatah and Hamas are scheduled to hold reconciliation talks on Wednesday and Thursday in Cairo, Abu Marzouk said.
Also this week, Abu Marzouk said, the Palestinians will hold indirect talks with Israel through Egyptian mediators. The talks will be exploratory and will focus in part on agreeing on an agenda for more talks next month, he said.
Blame-trading between the long-time rival Palestinian factions has become more frequent since the end last month of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, a sign that an agreement on running the coastal territory — now under Hamas' control — is not within reach.
Before the war broke out, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah group is in control of the West Bank, had worked out a tentative agreement with Hamas under which he would head a temporary unity government of experts in both the West Bank and Gaza until new elections are held. However, major issues were left unresolved under that deal, including the fate of 40,000 government employees hired by Hamas in the Gaza Strip as well as control over Gaza's Hamas-dominated security forces.
Hamas was mired in a severe financial crisis when it struck the deal, but has become emboldened since the end of the summer war because fighting Israel boosted its popularity among Palestinians.
"Fatah believes that Hamas emerged weaker from the war," said Hussam Badran, a spokesman for top Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. "On the contrary, Hamas came out stronger."
Abbas, in turn, refuses to make concessions to Hamas and insists on sweeping powers in Gaza, said al-Ahmed.
Failure to establish an Abbas-led government in Gaza will harm the territory's post-war reconstruction efforts. Egypt is hosting a pledging conference for Gaza on Oct. 12, but donor countries will likely hold back if Hamas — shunned by the West as a terror group — refuses to step aside.
Abu Marzouk said the Cairo talks later this week will focus on how the unity government can function and issues related to the post-war reconstruction of Gaza.
The Hamas and Fatah rivalry boiled over in 2007, when Hamas militants seized power in Gaza, leading to bitter fighting between the two factions. Gaza's blockade by Israel and Egypt began soon after Hamas took control of the territory, preventing most exports from Gaza and keeping the vast majority of the territory's 1.8 million Palestinians confined to the tiny area on the Mediterranean.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since late 2008. The last war one, in July and August, killed more than 2,100 Palestinians — roughly three quarters of them civilians and including more than 500 children — and wounded 11,000 people. The war also left some 100,000 homeless. Seventy-two people were killed on the Israeli side, including six civilians.
Since the end of the fighting, the truce has held and neither side appears eager to resume the conflict. But a failure to find a long-term solution for Gaza could plunge the region into more uncertainty. Hamas has used rocket fire at Israel as a means of political pressure. Israeli leaders say they will not tolerate attacks from Gaza and will retaliate harshly.
There are other major gaps. Hamas has rejected demands to disarm — Israel's prerequisite for lifting the blockade. Both Israel and Egypt view Abbas as a guarantor of any new Gaza deal. It is unlikely Egypt would ease restrictions at its Rafah border crossing with Gaza unless forces loyal to Abbas are deployed there.
Abu Marzouk told the AP in Gaza last week that Hamas does not want war, but suggested more fighting is inevitable if the blockade remains.
Barzak reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. AP writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Karin Laub in Gaza City contributed to this report.