JERUSALEM — The Palestinian militant group Hamas backed a plan to reconcile with its rival Fatah on Thursday, after more than a decade at loggerheads that left the Palestinian territories split between competing leaderships.
No details of the deal to form a unity government were immediately made public and major obstacles remain — including the fate of Hamas’s powerful armed wing — that have blocked past unity bids.
But the latest moves had envoys from both sides making public gestures at cooperation. Televised coverage showed Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri and Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad singing the tentative deal in Cairo. Egypt has been brokering talks.
Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the possible pact as a “final agreement to end the division,” the Agence France-Presse news agency reported. The two sides are expected to give a joint news conference in Cairo later Thursday.
The two factions fought gun battles on the streets of Gaza in 2007, after Fatah refused to cede control when Hamas won Palestinian elections. Since then Hamas has run Gaza, while Fatah has administered parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank through the Palestinian Authority.
There have been several abortive attempts at unity over the past 10 years to end the rifts, most recently in 2014 when the two sides agreed to form a unity government. However, Hamas has continued to run Gaza through a shadow administration.
This time though, some Palestinian officials say that the conditions are more conducive to reconciliation.
Gaza is in the midst of a worsening humanitarian crisis that has paralyzed daily life for its 2 million inhabitants. Since Hamas took control, Israel has imposed restrictive controls on trade and movement, citing security concerns.
The stranglehold worsened this summer as the Palestinian Authority asked Israel to cut its electricity supply to Gaza, leaving inhabitants with just a few hours of power a day. It also slashed the salaries it pays to government employees. Hamas has said it is willing to allow the unity government to take administrative control of Gaza.
Meanwhile, reconciliation is now increasingly in the interest of influential regional players.
Egypt is attempting to stamp out an insurgency in its Sinai peninsula by militants who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. It has accused Hamas of aiding the militants, allowing them to cross the border for medical treatment.
Through the deal, Egypt can pressure Hamas to safeguard Egyptian security in Sinai, said Qais Abdul-Karim, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
“Egypt is putting all its weight behind these efforts,” he said, adding that it also has interests in drawing Hamas away from the Muslim Brotherhood, which has faced brutal crackdowns in Egypt since the ouster of Egypt’s Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are working in partnership with Egypt to squeeze the Brotherhood and curb influence of their regional rivals Qatar and Turkey in Gaza, he said.
Meanwhile, Israel appears to have softened its stance as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza raises concerns over security. Israel has fought three wars with Hamas and in the past has raised objections to Palestinian reconciliation with the group.
Still, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has raised public concerns about the efforts to reconcile.
“We have a very straightforward attitude toward anyone who wants to effect such a reconciliation: Recognize the State of Israel, dismantle Hamas’s military wing, sever the relationship with Iran, which calls for our destruction,” he said earlier this month, according to Israeli press reports.
The question of what to do about Hamas’s armed wing of more than 20,000 militants, remains a major sticking point.
Talks in Cairo have so far focused on humanitarian issues such as electricity and the opening of Egypt’s border with Gaza, Palestinian officials said. While Hamas may be willing to cede administrative control of Gaza, they have given no indication that they would be willing to give up control of security.
Analysts say the U.S. administration is also more interested in unity, which it sees as a necessary step to bring about peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. President Trump has pledged to bring the two sides together in the “ultimate deal.”
In a visit surrounded by much fanfare, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah made a rare visit to Gaza earlier this month, after Hamas asked the unity government to take control and dissolved its governing administration.
The U.S. Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, said the United States was watching developments closely but stressed that any Palestinian government must “unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the state of Israel, acceptance of previous agreement and obligations between the parties, and peaceful negotiations.”
On the ground in Gaza, hope is damped by the memory of previous failed negotiation efforts. Restaurant owner Basil Eleina last month said that the humanitarian situation is the worst he’s ever known.
He is been forced to pay $8,000 a month for generator fuel to keep his business open. He said it’s an achievement every month to keep his 36 staff members employed.
“Everybody is hoping, but we have been disappointed so many times that you don’t want to let yourself have too much hope,” he said.
Heba Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.