After Bitter Split, Palestinian Factions Pledge To Reconcile
Seven years after a violent split, the two main Palestinian factions said Wednesday that they are attempting to reconcile and form a national unity government within five weeks.
The Palestine Liberation Organization and Hamas have tried several times to resolve their feud, but those efforts quickly unraveled.
So will this attempt fare any better?
The plan, announced after talks in Gaza City, calls for a unified government by the end of May, ending a rift dating to 2007 that left the PLO in charge of Palestinian affairs in the West Bank while Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip.
Ismail Haniya, the Hamas leader in Gaza, said, "This is the good news we tell our people — the era of division is over."
There are countless reasons to be skeptical, but both sides have been weakened by the split and have strong reasons for seeking reconciliation.
For the PLO, there's the prospect of improving the Palestinian negotiating position with Israel.
The PLO is headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who's been making little headway in peace talks with Israel. Since Abbas has had no control over Gaza for the past seven years, he faces the persistent criticism that he lacks the authority to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been the main driver of the current round of Palestinian-Israeli talks, which are set to expire at the end of this month with no breakthrough in sight.
A Palestinian unity deal could boost the standing of Abbas, if only among his own people. However, both the U.S. and Israel were critical in their initial reactions.
Hamas, meanwhile, has struggled to effectively run Gaza, the small, overcrowded territory along the Mediterranean coast that suffers from chronic poverty and limited contacts with the wider world.
Israel has always maintained strict controls over the borders of Gaza, which depends heavily on imports for many basic goods.
Gaza has been further squeezed since last summer, when Egypt's military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are extremely close allies, and that translated into a greater flow of people and goods along the shared Eygpt-Gaza border.
But the Egyptian military has a hostile relationship with Hamas and has imposed tighter controls along the frontier. This has included shutting many of the smuggling tunnels that traveled under the border and propped up Gaza's feeble economy.
The Palestinian unity plan calls for Abbas to head a unified government that would include members of both the PLO and Hamas. That's sure to involve weeks of intense haggling over sensitive issues such as who will control the Palestinian security forces. Abbas' party, Fatah, is the main faction in the PLO, which consists of multiple groups.
Assuming a deal is reached, the Palestinians would hold a new election within six months, an event with the potential to reopen old wounds.
The PLO long dominated Palestinian politics, but Hamas won the last Palestinian election in 2006. A year of uneasy relations followed, and the factions waged a brief but bloody battle in Gaza in 2007, with Hamas taking full control of the territory.
The PLO has remained in charge of the West Bank.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking shortly before the Palestinian deal was announced, said of Abbas:
"Does he want peace with Hamas, or peace with Israel? You can have one but not the other. I hope he chooses peace. So far he hasn't done so."
Shortly after the Palestinian deal, Israel launched an air strike in the northern Gaza Strip that wounded 12 civilians, including children, Reuters reported, citing a Health Ministry official. The Israeli military called it "counter-terrorism operation," which came two days after Palestinians fired rockets from the area into Israel.
Greg Myre, the international editor at NPR.org, was based in Jerusalem from 1999-2007 and is the author of This Burning Land: Lessons From the Front Lines of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
Update at 4:01 p.m. ET. Complicate Efforts:
NPR's Emily Harris reports from Jerusalem that almost immediately after the agreement was signed "Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called off the next peace talks session."
The U.S., meanwhile, said it was disappointed by the deal.
"This could seriously complicate our efforts," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said during a briefing. "Not just our efforts but the efforts of the parties to extend their negotiations."