GAZA CITY // Rival Palestinian leaders from the West Bank and Gaza Strip agreed on Wednesday to form a unity government within five weeks as peace talks with Israel face collapse.
It is not the first time that the rival sides have announced a deal to end seven years of separate Palestinians administrations in the West Bank and Gaza.
But the new bid by the Palestinian leadership based in the West Bank to reconcile with the Hamas rulers of Gaza drew an angry reaction from Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said it showed it was not serious about 11th-hour efforts to salvage US-brokered peace negotiations.
Israel canceled a planned session of peace negotiations with the Palestinians shortly after a unity deal was signed.
A statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said: “Israel has cancelled a negotiations meeting that was expected to be held this evening,” without providing further detail.
The agreement was reached in talks in Gaza City which continued into the early hours of the morning between Hamas leaders and a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) delegation headed by Azzam Al Ahmad, a senior figure in president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement.
The two sides met again later on Wednesday for talks expected to focus on the holding of fresh presidential and parliamentary elections across the Palestinian territories, as well as Hamas’s admission to the PLO.
Sources close to the talks said they were being held in a “positive atmosphere.”
The rival sides have announced several times before that they would make way for a unity government of technocrats only for it to fail to materialise, and analysts expressed scepticism that this time would be any different.
“People have heard the same thing over and over again and each time the agreement had been broken by either Fatah or Hamas,” said Samir Awad, politics professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
Analyst Hani Al Masri said: “This reconciliation has hardly any substance on the ground. It could collapse at any moment.
“Reconciliation (between the Palestinian factions) and negotiations (with Israel) are now just tactics — each side has its own calculations.”
The latest announcement of a deal came as US-brokered peace talks teetered on the edge of collapse and drew an angry response from Mr Netanyahu who accused the Palestinian president of plumping for a deal with Hamas instead of an agreement with Israel.
“Instead of moving into peace with Israel, he’s moving into peace with Hamas,” the Israeli prime minister said.
“He has to choose. Does he want peace with Hamas or peace with Israel?
“You can have one but not the other. I hope he chooses peace, so far he hasn’t done so.”
But Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat countered that peace with Israel was impossible without Palestinian unity.
“We can’t reach peace without reconciliation first,” he said.
Mr Erakat held yet another meeting with his Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni and US envoy Martin Indyk on Tuesday in a bid to salvage the peace talks, which are due to wrap up on April 29 if there is no agreement on their extension.
“The meeting lasted several hours but we did not manage to overcome our differences,” Mr Erakat said.
“We will continue to meet the Israeli delegation up to April 29 but clearly the Israelis don’t want to move the peace process forward.”
Mr Abbas has said he will extend the negotiations only if Israel frees a batch of Arab prisoners previously earmarked for release, freezes settlement building in the West Bank, including annexed east Jerusalem, and agrees to discuss the borders of a future Palestinian state.
But Mr Netanyahu accused him of setting impossible terms.
“We’re trying to relaunch the negotiations with the Palestinians. Every time we get to that point, Abu Mazen stacks on additional condition which he knows that Israel cannot give.”
Following the announcement of the plans to form a Palestinian unity government, Israel launched an air raid in the Gaza Strip, wounding 12 civilians including children and apparently missing its target, medical officials in the Hamas-ruled territory and Israeli reports said.
The Israeli military said it had carried out a “counter-terrorism operation” in the northern Gaza Strip. It said “a hit was not identified,” suggesting that the militant being targeted may have eluded the attack.
Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra said the air raid wounded 12 people, all of them civilians, among them children between the ages of five and 12, as well as adults.
Israeli media reports said Israel had targeted a militant riding on a motorcycle in northern Gaza, from where rockets are often shot at Israel, but that he escaped.
* Agence France-Presse and Reuters