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EGYPT: Palestinian reconciliation talks kick off in Cairo

February 26, 2009 |  7:14 am


Reconciliation talks between Hamas, Fatah and smaller Palestinian factions began Thursday in Cairo amid hopes for an agreement on a national unity government after nearly two years of bloodshed and political impasse that have slowed progress in the wider Arab-Israeli conflict.

In negotiations leading to the talks, Fatah and Hamas agreed to stop media smear campaigns against each other and to release prisoners held by both sides. "A certain number of detainees will be freed right at the beginning of the dialogue," according to a joint statement by Azzam Ahmed, leader of the Fatah bloc in the Palestinian parliament, and Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official.

The Egyptian-mediated talks follow the recent 22-day Israeli offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. They come as the Obama administration is pushing to break the Palestinian-Israeli deadlock and amid the coalition talks between conservative, right-wing and centrist parties attempting to form a new Israeli government.

"We hope this meeting is the real start of a new period ending the state of division," said Omar Sulieman, Egpyt's intelligence chief, who for months has been pressing 13 Palestinian factions to set the framework for a unity government. Meetings for such a goal are expected to continue through the first two weeks of March.

Nationalist Fatah and Islamic-inspired Hamas have long been rivals. In June 2007, this animosity erupted in deadly violence across the Palestinian territories as Hamas seized Gaza while the West Bank remained under control of Fatah and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. For more than two years, Israel and Washington have attempted to isolate Hamas while rewarding Fatah with money and political support.

The reconciliation negotiations come ahead of an Egyptian-hosted international donor conference scheduled for Monday to discuss the reconstruction of Gaza.  The Palestinians hope to raise $2.8 billion to rebuild the seaside enclave, where about 1,300 Palestinians died during the Israeli incursion. The question is who will receive the money; moderate Arab nations and Western donors have refused to deal with the militant Hamas.

Egypt contemplates a full reconciliation between the two factions in order to re-establish its shaken position as a main regional power and a highly influential voice in the Middle East.

-- Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo

Photo: Palestinians Azzam Ahmed of the Fatah delegation, right, and Hamas' Mahmoud Zahar talk after their meeting in Cairo. Credit: Associated Press