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Last updated: May 4, 2011 7:22 pm
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, hailed the end of “four black years”, after the Islamist Hamas movement and his own Fatah party signed a landmark reconciliation deal aimed at healing the bitter rift between the two groups.
The deal promises to restore unified rule over the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the West Bank, where the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority holds sway. The two parties have promised to establish a new consensus government, and have vowed to hold presidential and parliamentary elections within the next year.
US and European officials reacted with caution to the agreement, with several officials saying that Fatah and Hamas have yet to tackle some of the most contentious issues – including how to integrate their security forces and the composition of the new government.
At stake are, not least, billions of dollars in donor money to the PA, which has relied on financial support from Europe, the US and Arab countries to improve governance in the West Bank. Israel has called on western donors to stop the flow of money to the PA, and has halted the transfer of tax revenues it collects on the Palestinians’ behalf.
The Obama administration has made clear its deep reservations about a Hamas-backed unity government, while leaving itself some latitude on whether it would stop funding such a government.
“No clear determinations have been made,” said one US official, while the White House said on Wednesday that Washington would assess the new Palestinian government “based on its policies and will determine the implications for our assistance based on US law”.
A UK government official said: “We don’t want to get into a position where we reject things before we first see what the Hamas-Fatah interim government looks like.”
Speaking after the ceremony in Cairo, Mr Abbas insisted that the unity deal would not stand in the way of peace talks with Israel. “I am willing to go back to negotiations immediately ... after Israel stops settlement construction [for Israeli Jews in the occupied West Bank],” he said, reiterating a longstanding Palestinian demand. He said Israel had used Palestinian divisions as a pretext for stalling the peace process and was using the unity to delay progress further.
However, Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas, said the Palestinians’ fight was not against each other. “The only battle of the Palestinians is against Israel,” he said.
His comment underlined why the Hamas-Fatah agreement has faced angry opposition from the Israeli government, which denounced the deal as “a victory for terrorism”.
One question is whether western governments will continue to insist that any Palestinian government must abide by the three so-called Quartet conditions – recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and the acceptance of all earlier Palestinian agreements and obligations.
Israel is adamant that these principles should not be abandoned. The US, too appears committed. “If Hamas wants to play a political role, or a role in the political process, then ... it needs to accept the principles,” the US state department said on Tuesday.
But final control of the US purse strings is up to Congress, where a series of members have warned against any funding to the new unity government, some arguing that US anti-terrorism legislation would make such aid illegal.
“As in prior cases, the US will be compelled by both law and decency to withhold any assistance that could fall into the hands or control or even partial control of anyone reporting to, or belonging to a terrorist entity, as is Hamas,” said Gary Ackerman, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from New York.
The UN and the Europeans are leaning towards a more flexible approach and have played down the importance of the Quartet conditions.
According to several European diplomats, the key test will be whether the new government is made up of technocrats, meaning it must not include any person with a Hamas background. Secondly, “we want to see ongoing security co-operation between the PA and Israel in the West Bank”, one diplomat said.
Hamas, however, argues the close co-operation between the PA and Israel – which was aimed above all at crushing the Islamist group in the West Bank – must stop.
Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo and James Blitz in London
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