CAIRO (Reuters) - Unity talks between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Islamist group Hamas in Cairo began on an optimistic note on Tuesday, with a top Hamas delegate saying he was “full of hope” for a roadmap to reconciliation.
The Western-backed mainstream Fatah party lost control of Gaza to Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the West and Israel, in fighting in 2007. But last month Hamas agreed to cede powers in Gaza to President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah-backed government in a deal mediated by Egypt.
Cairo subsequently set up this week’s three-day talks on the implementation of further steps towards unity.
“We meet in Cairo full of hope to draw and lay down a road map entitled a national reconciliation,” senior Hamas delegate Izzat Reshiq said on his Twitter account.
“Unity and national reconciliation among all our Palestinian people is our strategic option to move forwards.”
Azzam Ahmad, one of the leaders of the Fatah delegation, said negotiations would also cover the running of government ministries in Gaza. Also heading the Fatah contingent is Majed Faraj, Palestinian intelligence chief and a close ally of Abbas.
A third issue on the table would be the fate of 40,000 to 50,000 employees Hamas hired since 2007. Heading the Hamas delegation is Saleh Arouri, the group’s deputy leader.
Security will be the main focus of the talks, including the possible deployment of 3,000 Fatah security officers who would join a Gaza police force over the course of a year, restoring much of Abbas’ influence in Gaza and further loosening Hamas’ grip.
Fatah’s Ahmad said Rafah, Gaza’s only border crossing with Egypt and once the main gateway to the world for its 2 million people, should be run by Abbas’s presidential guards with supervision from the European Union border agency instead of the currently deployed Hamas-linked employees.
He said the government would work to complete arrangements in a week or two for the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned the Palestinians against “bogus reconciliations”, reiterating Israel’s demand for the disbandment of Hamas’s military faction. Hamas has said its arms are not up for discussion.
The cabinet of the Fatah-backed Palestinian government based in the West Bank also said on Tuesday it hoped the Cairo talks would succeed.
“The cabinet hopes the national dialogue session in Cairo will succeed in achieving reconciliation and reunite the homeland. It expresses readiness to assume full duties in Gaza Strip soon the factions clinched an agreement.”
The handover of administrative powers was a major reversal for Hamas, partially prompted by the group’s fears of potential financial and political isolation after its main donor Qatar suffered a major diplomatic crisis with key allies.
Both sides hope that the proposed deployment of security personnel from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority to Gaza’s borders will encourage Egypt and Israel to ease restrictions at border crossings, and help Gaza revive its economy.
Hamas and Fatah will also discuss a date for presidential and legislative elections and reforms of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is in charge of long-stalled peace efforts with Israel.
The last Palestinian legislative election was in 2006 when Hamas won a surprise victory. This sparked the political rupture between Hamas and Fatah which eventually led to their short civil war in Gaza in 2007.
Egypt has helped mediate several attempts to reconcile the two movements and form a power-sharing unity government in Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas and Fatah agreed in 2014 to form a national reconciliation government, but despite that deal, Hamas’s shadow government continued to rule the Gaza Strip.
Reporting by Mostafa Hashem in Cairo; Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky