GAZA CITY (AFP) – Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Hamas supremo Khaled Meshaal will hold crunch talks on Tuesday to try to strike an elusive national unity deal and end recent fighting that killed 66 people.
On the eve of the Saudi Arabia talks, a shaky ceasefire between Abbas’s Fatah faction and the ruling Hamas was taking tentative hold in the Gaza Strip where guns, mortars and grenades have fallen silent for the first time in days.
Since January 25, warring factions have battled in the fiercest Palestinian fighting in the Gaza Strip after Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006, thrashing the secular Fatah and limiting its power to the presidency.
The crisis summit hosted by Saudi King Abdullah in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, will seek to overcome deep-seated differences between the two factions on reaching a power-sharing agreement.
Negotiators have tried but failed for months to find common ground on the key issues of ties with Israel and the division of portfolios in a unity accord that would seat Hamas and Fatah at the same cabinet table.
The Hamas-led government, run by prime minister Ismail Haniya, has resisted enormous pressure to renounce violence, recognize Israel and abide by peace deals between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel.
An ensuing political and aid boycott from the main sponsors of the stalled Middle East peace process — the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and United States — has unleashed an unprecedented Palestinian economic crisis.
Haniya, who is also expected to attend the talks, on Monday took his lead from Meshaal in declaring there could be no other possible outcome but success, despite months of failed meetings and collapsed ceasefire deals.
“We have no choice but an agreement,” Haniya told his cabinet meeting in Gaza City. “If intentions are sincere and we put our higher interests first, then we are certain that we will all agree.”
In an indication of the tensions still plaguing the Palestinian territories, a Hamas employee of the interior ministry was wounded by gunmen who ambushed his car and kidnapped one of his colleagues in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
Fatah official Abbas al-Ahmed, who will accompany the Palestinian president — Haniya’s nemesis — to Mecca, said the agreement must be rooted in the political programme of the PLO, which the Islamist movement never joined.
“We must reach an agreement based on the political programme of the PLO. The government must respect this programme, as well as past agreements, to allow us to end the blockade and shift the Palestinian cause out of impasse,” he said.
“We must take the ground from under Israel’s feet which pretends there is no Palestinian partner to negotiate with,” he added.
In Abu Dhabi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is touring the Gulf, said that as the rotating EU president, Germany would throw its weight behind the reconciliation talks.
“We will do everything in our power to ensure the talks are successful,” Merkel said, spelling out that the European Union would stay in close contact with Saudi Arabia.
Meshaal, the hardline Hamas chief who has been blamed for dooming past efforts to reach a deal, has also impressed a sense of urgency on the Mecca talks.
“I say to Fatah that it is forbidden to fail. Only dialogue can settle political disagreements,” he told a news conference in Damascus on Sunday.
“We want a true partnership between Fatah and Hamas. We are in the same boat,” he added.
The Mecca summit will be a second rare meeting for Abbas, wooed by the international community, and Meshaal, boycotted by the West, after talks in Syria on January 21 ended without a breakthrough.
Just four days after their meeting, a new round of violence flared in the Gaza Strip, with the death toll standing at 66 after three Palestinians died of their injuries on Monday.
The Palestinian envoy in Riyadh, Jamal Shobaki, said the summit would be open-ended. “Our Saudi brothers will do everything possible to ensure the participants do not return without an agreement,” he told AFP by telephone.