CAIRO (AFP) – Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal buried the hatchet at a Cairo reconciliation ceremony on Wednesday that ends a nearly four-year feud but has angered Israel.
Palestinians gathered in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip to celebrate the long-awaited agreement to put an end to rival administrations in the West Bank and Gaza, and restore the unity shattered by deadly fighting in June 2007.
But in London, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on the first leg of a tour aimed at convincing European leaders that the deal between Abbas’s secular Fatah faction and the Islamist Hamas which the Jewish state boycotts as a terrorist organisation will be disastrous for Middle East peace.
Abbas said the Palestinians had decided to “turn the black page of division forever,” as he joined Meshaal and the leaders of other Palestinian factions in finalising the long-awaited agreement inked on Tuesday.
“We are certain of success so long as we’re united … Reconciliation clears the way not only to putting the Palestinian house in order but also to a just peace,” he added.
The Palestinian president said the Israeli premier must now “choose between (building) settlements and peace,” and accused Israel of opposing the Palestinian reconciliation accord as “a pretext to avoid peace negotiations.”
He was countering Netanyahu’s insistence that his Palestinian Authority need to choose between unity with Hamas, which does not recognise Israel, and peace with the Jewish state.
Abbas has refused to resume peace talks with Israel until it restores a moratorium on all settlement construction on occupied territory which the Palestinians want for their promised state.
The reconciliation agreement provides for the formation of an interim government of independents to lay the groundwork for presidential and parliamentary elections within a year.
Negotiations on the new government line-up were due to start straight after Wednesday’s ceremony.
The surprise deal, which was announced last week, comes after 18 months of fruitless talks.
In Gaza City, around 300 people waving Palestinian flags gathered in a festive atmosphere to celebrate the deal, dancing and letting off firecrackers.
“Palestinians want to end the division,” said one banner held aloft by the crowd.
Many participants waved the green flag of Hamas, and a few also raised the yellow flag of the Fatah movement, which has been banned in Gaza ever since the Islamists ousted Abbas loyalists from the territory four years ago.
“This is the day that we’ve all been waiting for,” an announcer shouted to the cheering crowd.
Support rallies were also planned in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where Abbas has his headquarters.
But Israel responded angrily, threatening to withhold the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues until it could be sure no money would go to Hamas.
Ahead of his London talks, Netanyahu told Britain’s former premier Tony Blair, now a Middle East peace envoy for the major diplomatic players, that Abbas must “completely cancel” the reconciliation deal which he said had dealt a “hard blow to the peace process.”
Israel’s home front defence minister, Matan Vilnai, told public radio on Wednesday that Abbas had “made a mistake in agreeing this deal when Hamas is in a position of weakness, which explains why it made moves towards reconciliation.”
The minister said Abbas should have insisted on a “clear declaration from Hamas on recognising Israel and condemning terrorism before signing.”
But the Palestinian president made clear on Tuesday that Hamas would not have to amend its charter to recognise Israel under the reconciliation deal.
“It is not required of Hamas to recognise Israel. We will form a government of technocrats and we will not ask Hamas to recognise Israel,” he said.
Palestinian officials have said the new government’s role will be to manage affairs in the Palestinian territories, while the Palestine Liberation Organisation, of which Hamas is not a member, will remain in charge of peace talks with Israel.
Among the first tasks to be tackled is the establishment of a higher security council tasked with examining ways to integrate Hamas and Fatah’s rival security forces and to create a “professional” security service.
The accord also calls for the creation of an electoral tribunal and for the release of a number of prisoners held by the rival movements in jails in the West Bank and Gaza.
The reconciliation deal marks a diplomatic coup for Egypt’s new government, 11 weeks after president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular revolt.
Cairo had tried for more than a year to mediate between Fatah and Hamas but its efforts fell flat.