Fatah, Hamas agree to share power

Tentative pact may stanch infighting, affect aid embargo

February 09, 2007|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- The rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah announced yesterday that they have agreed in principle to share power in hopes of easing months of deadly factional fighting and breaking a damaging international aid embargo.

The tentative accord was announced in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where leaders of the two groups met for two days under the auspices of King Abdullah.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he was hopeful the agreement would quell the factional clashes that have left scores of Palestinians dead in the Gaza Strip. Previous agreements between the two factions have collapsed.

"I hope that all the shameful acts that make us feel ashamed will stop, and that we move seriously toward liberating our country," Abbas said during a signing ceremony in a palace near the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site. He was joined by the exiled political leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, as Saudi King Abdullah watched from between the two men.

Celebratory gunfire erupted in the Gaza Strip as news of the agreement reached the impoverished coastal enclave.

But the pact was vague on several issues that could determine whether it can rein in Gaza's gunmen or lift the Western aid boycott, imposed after Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006.

Israel and much of the West consider the radical Islamist group a terrorist organization, and it refuses to recognize the state of Israel or honor past agreements between the Jewish state and Palestinians.

Israel offered a terse immediate response. "Israel expects the new Palestinian government to respect all three of the international community's principles: recognition of Israel, acceptance of all former treaties and renunciation of terror," said Miri Eisin, an Israeli government spokeswoman.

Officials from the two Palestinian factions said they have worked out a formula for distributing Cabinet positions, including leaving Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas as prime minister, but they did not name an interior minister, a crucial post with formal authority over security forces. The minister would be nominated by Hamas but approved by Abbas, of Fatah.

The parties also have not worked out who will control the various agencies of the security services, a potentially explosive issue. The two factions planned further talks on those details and several other unresolved matters.

The agreement also does not include language that explicitly recognizes Israel, nor does it include a renunciation of violence, two of the three conditions set by the West for resuming direct aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Instead, the language was more oblique: The new government would "respect" international resolutions and past agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. That wording can be interpreted as providing tacit recognition of Israel, but it falls well short of international demands.

The Middle East mediators known as the Quartet - the United States, European Union, Russia and United Nations - had demanded as their third condition that the new government abide by past Palestinian-Israeli agreements.

It remains unclear whether the language agreed upon by Fatah and Hamas will satisfy the Quartet's conditions enough to restart the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars annually in foreign aid.

If the accord quiets the internal strife, Abbas could have freer rein to pursue a peace agreement with Israel at a time when the Bush administration is pushing new talks.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to join Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Feb. 19 for a three-way meeting in Jerusalem aimed at exploring the possible outlines of a final peace agreement.

If the Palestinian agreement holds, it could create a policy conundrum for the United States and Israel, which have sought to isolate the Hamas-led government by cutting off contacts and money.

In September, the two groups announced a similar agreement on a unity government, but the deal fizzled almost as soon as it was declared. Subsequent talks went nowhere.

"For those who are afraid that this agreement will be similar to the previous one, I say, `No,'" Mashaal said. "We swear to God in this blessed place that this agreement has our complete commitment."

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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