The Palestinian secular nationalist party, Fatah, has reached an agreement with the Islamists of Hamas to form an interim Palestinian government and to organise a general election.
The agreement goes alongside an Egyptian promise to open up the Egypt-Gaza border.
Speaking on Egyptian state television, Fatah central committee member Azzam al-Ahmad said the election would take place within a year.
The formal, detailed agreement is expected to be signed on 4 May. Hamas’ leader Khaled Meshaal arrived in Cairo on 1 May to take part in the formal signing, which has been brokered by Egypt.
As details of the accord were announced, 100 people went to the Square of the Unknown Soldier in Gaza to celebrate. They were beaten by Hamas police thugs. Hamas has built a one-party clerical state in Gaza and tolerates little opposition — even, in this case, an independent manifestation of support for its own policy.
One proposed effect of the deal will be that Fatah will be allowed back into Gaza and Hamas allowed to operate openly in the West Bank. How that works in practice remains to be seen, but if the deal results in more political space in Gaza and the West Bank, this might be exploited by democratic opponents of Hamas.
Fatah holds power in the occupied West Bank. Hamas, which won the last parliamentary election in 2006, routed Abbas’ forces in 2007 to take state power in Gaza. Both sides have heavily repressed their rivals in the areas under their control, although much more political space exists in the West Bank.
The Hamas-Fatah deal is a product of the recent upheaval in Egypt and represents an Egyptian policy shift. Egypt’s military is aiming to gain leverage over Israel, mend fences with Iran, and gain credibility among a largely pro-Palestinian population. They are shifting Egyptian foreign policy away from the US and towards re-establishing Egypt as a major independent force in the region.
Fatah’s President Mahmoud Abbas has lost his patron in Egypt, President Mubarak. Hamas may face a similar problem, as Syria’s president Bashar Assad is facing his own uprising.
The reconciliation is backed by Iran. And the Syrians have followed the Iranian lead.
Egypt signed a peace accord with Israel in 1979. Israel worried that the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak would mean the scrapping of the peace treaty, although one of the first announcements made by the Egyptian military was to confirm their commitment to peace with Israel.
Israel has denounced the agreement. Israeli President Shimon Peres said, “The agreement between Fatah and the terror organisation Hamas is a fatal mistake that will prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and will sabotage chances of peace and stability in the region.”
Hamas’s description of the killing of Osama bin Laden as the assassination of “an Arab holy warrior” will not ease Israeli Jewish fears.
However, the current right-wing Israeli government has offered little to the Palestinians. Abbas has said he will not return to US-sponsored peace negotiations until settlement-building is halted in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem
As a way of punishing Abbas, and applying pressure, Israel has suspended tax transfers to the Palestinians. Reuters reports that Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz has suspended a routine handover of 300 million shekels ($88 million) in customs and other levies that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians under interim peace deals.
The payments make up 70% of Palestinian Authority revenue. Hassan Abu Libdeh, the Palestinian economy minister, said the PA would be unable to pay salaries of its employees if the transfers were blocked. The PA pays the wages of 150,000 people in the West Bank and Gaza.
The US says it will keep funding the PA. A State Department spokesperson said, “If a new Palestinian government is formed, we will assess it based on its policies and [that] will determine the implications” for future aid.