RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – The leader of Hamas said Sunday that significant progress has been made in Egyptian-sponsored talks aimed at reconciling his militant Palestinian group with the rival Fatah movement.
The two main Palestinian factions have been bitterly divided since Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, leaving Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah in control only of the West Bank.
The split has complicated peace efforts with Israel as well as reconstruction of the impoverished and war-damaged Gaza Strip. Efforts to bring them together in a power-sharing arrangement failed and the Egyptian-mediated talks are now aimed at ending the division by holding new Palestinian elections.
Khaled Mashaal, who is based in Damascus, Syria, said Hamas still has reservations over the latest Egyptian proposal, which calls for presidential and legislative elections in the first half of this year as well as a reorganization of the security forces under Abbas' authority. He did not elaborate.
Hamas and seven other radical, Damascus-based Palestinian factions have rejected the proposal because it does not state that Palestinians have the right to keep fighting Israel. Fatah, which favors negotiations with Israel, has accepted the Egyptian plan.
"We have made big strides in the Palestinian-Palestinian negotiations and talks that have taken place in Cairo," Mashaal said. "We are in the final stages."
"The problem is the completion of the (Egyptian) paper ... so it can satisfy everybody's demands," Mashaal said during a visit to Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom sponsored a unity agreement between the two factions in February 2007. But that effort fell apart in bickering over implementation, and in June of that year Hamas ousted its rivals from Gaza in a five-day civil war.
The Hamas leader spoke after talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. A week earlier Abbas visited for the kingdom talks with King Abdullah.
Mashaal also blamed Israel for a delay in indirect negotiations to exchange hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Palestinian militants in 2006.
"We are still following the negotiations through the German mediator," he said. "The Israeli position keeps changing. They take one step forward and two back."