Morsi bids to unite Palestinian factions

Egyptian leader in talks with Hamas and Fatah but some say meetings are more about public relations than any desire for unity.

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CAIRO // The Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, turned his focus to foreign policy yesterday as he sought to energise stalled reconciliation efforts between the rival Palestinian factions.

He met Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah chairman and Palestinian Authority president, in Cairo before holding talks with the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal.

There were also reports that Mr Abbas and Mr Meshaal would meet later in the evening, without the Egyptian president.

But analysts described the meetings as more about public relations than any desire for unity from the sparring parties, which have been at odds since Hamas overran Gaza in 2007.

Mr Morsi enjoyed his greatest diplomatic success when he brokered a ceasefire between Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Israel in November. The Muslim Brotherhood, of which Mr Morsi is a long-time member, is the parent group of Hamas.

But, Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, downplayed yesterday's meetings as "exploratory", for Egyptian officials to see "where things stand and look into the best ways to activate reconciliation efforts".

Others, such as Mahmoud Zahar, a prominent Hamas founder based in Gaza, who has at times opposed reconciliation efforts, were outright pessimistic.

"Who knows what will happen after this?" he said.

Cairo helped the factions reach a landmark reconciliation pact in May 2011, although bickering, competing international allegiances and differences over how to deal with Israel have thwarted progress in attempts to reunite the Hamas-run Gaza Strip with Fatah in the West Bank.

Subsequent attempts to repair the rift have faltered, including a similar accord between Mr Abbas and Mr Meshaal, brokered in the Qatari capital, Doha, last year.

Hani Masri, a Palestinian writer and analyst who lives in Ramallah, said the factions had come under increasing pressure to unite from the Palestinian public since Mr Abbas won non-member statehood recognition for the Palestinians at the United Nations in November, and Hamas's eight-day war with Israel that same month.

"The pressure is forcing Fatah and Hamas to do something like this," he said. "They have to meet like this because the Palestinian public has demonstrated with rallies in both Gaza and the West Bank, and in response to the UN victory, that they want, above anything else, reconciliation".

Hamas supported Mr Abbas' UN effort, in part as goodwill to help overcome lingering bitterness from the Islamist group's violent takeover of Fatah territory in 2007.

Hamas has seen its credibility rise after the November war, with one poll last month suggesting that Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas premier in Gaza, would edge out Mr Abbas if a presidential election were held then. Under their reconciliation agreement, the factions were supposed to allow an interim government of political independents to run affairs until elections led to national unity.

Both sides have made gestures of reconciliation recently. Hamas members were allowed to rally in the West Bank for the first time since 2007. Hamas, in turn, allowed tens of thousands of Fatah supporters in Gaza to celebrate the secular-leaning faction's anniversary this month.

Mohammed Shtayeh, a member of Fatah's Central Committee, welcomed the Egyptian initiative but said the onus was on Hamas.

"The Fatah celebration in Gaza shows that 70 per cent of people in Gaza are in affiliation with Fatah and its political programme," he said. "So Hamas should think twice about its thinking in Gaza."

Hamas, which has lucrative businesses in Gaza, may be waiting for more support from an Arab world increasingly under the sway of fellow Islamist groups, such as in Egypt. Qatar intends to spend about US$400 million (Dh1.47 billion) to rebuild war-ravaged Gaza following the landmark visit there in October by the country's emir.

In July, Hamas banned Palestinian election officials from operating in Gaza. That may have been a result of pressure from the Gaza-based leadership, whose opposition to Mr Meshaal and the previous reconciliation attempts advocated by the exiled leadership helped scuttle their progress.

Mr Meshaal's authority in the group has wavered since he dismantled its Damascus headquarters in 2011. In the West Bank, the security forces of Mr Abbas still coordinate with Israel's military in arresting Islamists, including Hamas members.

His administrative authority faces an acute financial crisis because of undelivered aid from foreign countries and Israeli obstacles, which may make him reluctant to reconcile with Hamas and thereby defy one of his biggest benefactors, the United States.

Along with Israel and the European Union, Washington classifies Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

* With additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press


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