MECCA(Reuters) -Palestinian leaders headed to the Islamic holy city of Mecca on Tuesday for what officials depicted as a last-ditch effort to end factional fighting and a crippling Western embargo.
The Fatah movement headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Islamist group Hamas, which won parliamentary elections last year, have been locked in a battle for power that has spiraled into violence and killed about 80 people since December.
Western countries have blocked funding to Hamas, saying it must first recognize Israel and agree to previous agreements with Israel signed by the Palestinian Authority, a self-rule body set up in 1993 on land occupied by Israel in 1967 and on which Palestinians hope to establish their own state.
“They will not leave this holy place without an agreement, because things are catastrophic on the ground and the whole world will turn its back on us if we continue that way,” said Palestinian ambassador to Saudi Arabia Jamal al-Shobaki.
Those sentiments were echoed by a Hamas cabinet official who said: “If we do not hammer out an agreement in this holy place we won’t be able to do it anywhere.”
The talks were expected to start on Tuesday evening and extend into Wednesday.
Israel and the United States do not want Abbas to agree to a unity government that stops short of recognizing the Jewish state, renouncing violence in the historic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and abiding by interim peace deals.
Senior Abbas aide Azzam al-Ahmad said the talks would aim to persuade Hamas to accept the program of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which would involve an implicit Hamas recognition of Israel that could end the aid blockade.
“This won’t contradict the requirements for lifting the siege … I’m sure once Hamas honors PLO agreements the Quartet will not be asking Hamas to recognize Israel any more,” he said, referring to a bloc of Middle East peace mediators including the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.
Previous efforts to stem the bloodshed and find common political ground have resulted in short-lived ceasefires and in a threat by Abbas to call a new parliamentary election, a move Hamas has said would be tantamount to a coup.
Damascus-based Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Prime Minister who is based in the Gaza Strip, should arrive in Mecca later on Tuesday for the talks.
They were expected to spend the afternoon performing pilgrimage at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, before beginning talks in the evening.
“We promise our people that we will do all we can and will exert every effort in order to reach a Palestinian agreement over the formation of a unity government,” Haniyeh said before heading for the talks, called by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.
A key U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia is keen to see an end to violence among the Palestinians, fearing that it is contributing to radicalism in the region that will offer non-Arab Shi’ite Muslim power Iran a chance to increase its influence.
Hamas receives support from Iran.