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Palestinians set to ink unity agreement in Cairo

Palestinians meet in Cairo to sign reconciliation deal

AFP, Tuesday 3 May 2011

Palestinian factions gathered in Cairo on Tuesday to sign a reconciliation deal that will pave the way for elections within a year and aims to end the bitter divide between the West Bank and Gaza.

Representatives of 13 Palestinian factions, including president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah party and rivals Hamas, as well as independent political figures were to hold talks with Egyptian officials at 11:30 am (0930 GMT), delegation members told AFP.

The factions and independents will each meet with Egyptian intelligence chief Murad Muwafi to sign the deal, ahead of talks later in the evening between Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal.

The deal, which was announced last week, comes after 18 months of fruitless talks and envisions the formation of an interim government of independents that will pave the way for presidential and legislative elections within a year.

The deal will also be signed by a variety of Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Palestinian People's Party.

Israel has heavily criticised the agreement, refusing to deal with a government that includes Hamas, which it and the United States brand a terrorist organisation.

But Palestinian officials say the new government's role will be to manage affairs in the Palestinian territories, while the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) will remain in charge of peace talks with Israel.

"The government's role is limited to administrative affairs dealing with the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," Fatah delegation chief Azzam al-Ahmad told reporters in Cairo on Monday.

"But all political matters including negotiating the peace process will remain the responsibility of the PLO," he said.

Tuesday's signings will be followed by an official ceremony on Wednesday in Cairo, which will be attended by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi, Muwafi and Arab League chief Amr Mussa.

After the ceremony, work will immediately begin on the formation of the new government, Ahmad said.

Among the first tasks to be tackled is the establishment of a higher security council tasked with examining ways to integrate Hamas and Fatah's rival security forces and creating a "professional" security service.

The accord also calls for the creation of an electoral tribunal and for the release of a number prisoners held by the rival movements in jails in the West Bank and Gaza.

Fatah and Hamas have been bitterly divided since June 2007 when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, routing Fatah loyalists in bloody confrontations that effectively split the Palestinian territories into two separate entities with separate governments.

The reconciliation deal marks a diplomatic coup for Egypt's new government, 11 weeks after president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular revolt.

Cairo had tried for more than a year to mediate between Fatah and Hamas but its efforts fell flat.

Senior Hamas official Mahmud Zahar told the Egyptian independent daily al-Masry al-Youm that the Mubarak regime had "put pressure on Hamas to make concessions."

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