Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Fatah's rally hints at unity effort with Hamas

JERUSALEM — The Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held a mass rally in Gaza on Friday to mark the 48th anniversary of its founding, the first such gathering permitted by the rival Islamist Hamas group since it seized control of the territory in a brief civil war in 2007.

The rally was another sign of thawing relations between the factions since November, when Israel launched a military offensive to halt rocket fire from Gaza and Abbas won limited recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. Those actions have spurred new moves to carry out a stalled reconciliation accord signed by the factions in 2011.

Hamas granted permission for the Fatah rally in Gaza after it was allowed to hold two anniversary rallies last month in the West Bank, parts of which are controlled by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Since their split five years ago, each faction had banned public gatherings by its rival.

The rift has divided Palestinians politically and geographically, dealing a heavy blow to their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

On Friday tens of thousands of people, many waving yellow Fatah banners, gathered in Saraya Square in Gaza City in what witnesses described as a carnival atmosphere.

The jostling crowd surged onto a stage, where Fatah leaders, including senior figures from the West Bank, were assembled, witnesses said. The ensuing chaos forced organizers to cut the gathering short after Abbas gave a video address from his headquarters in Ramallah.

Abbas told the crowd that "soon we will regain our unity," which he called "a step on the way to ending the (Israeli) occupation."

Nabil Shaath, a senior Fatah official who had arrived from the West Bank, said the party had received a congratulatory message from Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, expressing hope that the two factions could resolve their differences.

An Egyptian official said Cairo was planning to invite the two factions for talks within two weeks, Reuters reported.

Yet for all of the conciliatory rhetoric, daunting obstacles remain before the power-sharing agreement can be put into place. Moves to set up an interim government have stalled, and the rivals are at odds over policies toward Israel. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and advocates violence against it, while Fatah supports negotiations with the Israelis to reach a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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