GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Hamas on Wednesday cleared out of the private Gaza residence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in the most concrete sign yet that the rivals are moving toward reconciliation.
The Islamic militant Hamas took over the residence when it seized Gaza from the Western-backed Abbas in 2007, leaving him with only parts of the West Bank. Since then, the rivals have become entrenched in their respective territories, setting up separate governments.
Repeated reconciliation efforts have failed, but the current one might have a better chance because both sides seem to have more compelling reasons than in the past to strike a compromise.
Hamas has faced growing regional isolation and a crippling financial crisis in recent months, largely a result of an asphyxiating border closure by neighboring Egypt. Abbas, meanwhile, suffered a political setback when the latest nine-month round of peace negotiations with Israel ran aground last month.
On April 23 the two sides agreed to revive a previous reconciliation deal that was never implemented. Under that deal, Abbas is to form an interim unity government of technocrats by the end of May. The main task of the government is to prepare for general elections by 2015.
The ideological gap between Abbas and Hamas remains wide, and a temporary government of technocrats is meant to paper over those differences.
At the same time, Abbas needs to reassure Western donor countries, which consider Hamas a terror organization, that the Islamic militants will not play a role in his new administration. Abbas has said any unity government would recognize Israel, renounce violence and uphold previous interim deals — positions Hamas rejects.
Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Wednesday that Hamas is willing to do its part to end the Palestinian split, but that the movement would not "abandon its fixed political positions." He also said a new government would require the approval of the Palestinian parliament — elected in 2006 but not functional since the split — where Hamas has a majority.
It remains unclear whether Hamas would refrain from challenging Abbas' positions publicly during the interim period in order to ensure the continued flow of foreign funding.
While many in the West Bank and Gaza remain skeptical about reconciliation, recent measures on the ground suggest a greater willingness by the two sides to move forward. Last week, Hamas for the first time lifted a six-year ban and allowed the sale of a West Bank newspaper that is considered close to Abbas.
On Wednesday, Hamas security forces removed belongings from the Abbas villa in Gaza City. They loaded mattresses, desks and chairs onto pickup trucks and drove out of the gated compound.
The security forces, which had used the compound as a base, barred camera crews and photographers from filming or taking pictures as the items were driven away, but later allowed them into several rooms on the ground floor.
A modest living room with a flat-screen TV was devoid of decorations, but two large photo albums on a shelf contained pictures of Abbas with various leaders and officials, including former U.S. mediator Dennis Ross.
Iyad Al Bozum, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Gaza, confirmed that security forces cleared their belongings from the residence, but that a formal handover of the villa requires another government decision.
"Our presence there during the past seven years was to protect the place," he said.
Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed reporting.