RAMALLAH // An independent Palestinian delegation is due to start another round of efforts next week to reconcile Hamas and Fatah, the rival movements whose estrangement since June 2007 has grown increasingly frustrating to the Palestinian public and undermined the Palestinian negotiating position. The delegation will visit senior officials from both parties in Ramallah and Gaza, as well as Hamas officials in Damascus, before going to Cairo to present their findings.
Egypt is the main mediator between the two factions and produced a unity proposal last year that was signed by Fatah but opposed in part by Hamas. Those objections remain the focus of the delegation's efforts, even if both Cairo and Ramallah have so far insisted that Hamas sign the document without amendment. The delegation, the Palestinian National Coalition, is led by Munib al Masri, a wealthy businessman, and is composed of independent political figures. In June, it was given a mandate by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to pursue its mission, but after a first round of unsuccessful meetings, Mr Abbas revoked his mandate. The delegation now acts independently.
This lack of official authorisation, however, has not stopped Mr Masri from declaring himself cautiously optimistic about the new round of talks. "The focus is on attentively listening to problems that obstruct ratifying the Egyptian proposal. We should take these notes seriously enough to get all views closer," Mr Masri told the Palestinian Maan news agency yesterday. The greatest obstacle to a deal, he said, was "scepticism", although he conceded that there was no "magic wand" that would bring the sides closer.
"There are issues that take time . . . [but] factions have to be told that the national project is at risk." Hamas has objected to three points in the Egyptian unity proposal, which was hammered out after several rounds of negotiations among Palestinian factions in Cairo last year: the composition of the General Elections Committee, the section on reforming Palestinian security forces, which mentions only Gaza, and the lack of guarantees that Hamas members and affiliates who were fired in the wake of the fighting that led to a de facto division of the occupied Palestinian territories in 2007 will be hired again and recompensed.
So far, there has been no progress on resolving these points of contention, Mahmoud Ramahi, a Hamas legislator from the West Bank, said yesterday. "Unity talks are still at point zero. Hamas has said clearly that it will never sign the Egyptian document without some changes or at least some letter of guarantee or notes of explanation about the three points." Mr Ramahi said Egyptian and US pressure on Mr Abbas is primarily to blame for the impasse. Without that pressure, he said, the differences between Fatah and Hamas could be overcome.
"The problem is not here. Egypt is dealing with the Palestinian division as a security issue rather than a political one," the Hamas legislator said. The Palestinian division has time and again polled as the issue that Palestinians, largely sceptical about negotiations with Israel, consider the top priority for their leaders to address. It is also cited by Palestinian, Israeli and international observers as one factor hurting the Palestinian position in talks with the US and Israel, since Mr Abbas is not seen as negotiating on behalf of all Palestinians.
On a practical level, it has led to a de facto political division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and paralysed parliament. The West Bank has seen a concerted clampdown on Hamas institutions, including Hamas-affiliated charities, as well as grassroots political activities. In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas has largely hired its own public sector employees to replace the former Palestinian Authority workers, who are in effect being paid by the West Bank PA to stay at home.