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Gaza's Hamas government says it's ready to step aside

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Nov. 24, 2011: Palestinian Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are seen together during their meeting in Cairo, Egypt. (AP/Office of Khaled Meshaal, File)

The government installed by the Islamic militant group Hamas after its takeover of the Gaza Strip seven years ago said it held its last meeting Tuesday and is ready to hand "full responsibility" to a Palestinian unity government.

Tuesday's Cabinet statement was the latest sign that rival factions Hamas and Fatah are close to a deal on a unity government that is to end a crippling political rift and prepare for elections in 2015.

The longstanding conflict between the opponents peaked in 2007, when the Islamic militant Hamas drove the Fatah movement of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas out of Gaza, leaving his forces confined to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Since then, both sides have run separate governments in their respective territories on the opposite ends of Israel. Abbas seeks both the West Bank and Gaza as parts of a future Palestinian state, and the internal rift is a major impediment to any potential peace deal.

Repeated reconciliation attempts have failed, but the rivals appear more flexible this time because both are struggling with crises.

Hamas faces severe money problems and has been unable to cover the government payroll because of a tightening border blockade of Gaza by neighboring Egypt over the past year. Israel continues to enforce its border blockade of Gaza, in place since 2007.

Abbas, meanwhile, needs a new political strategy after the latest attempt to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood with Israel collapsed in April. Abbas is skeptical about reaching a deal with Israel's hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

In April, reconciliation efforts resumed. Negotiators said Tuesday they are close to agreement on the new Cabinet lineup. A formal announcement is expected as early as Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Hamas Cabinet said it held its 343rd and final weekly meeting Tuesday. Deputy Prime Minister Ziad al-Zaza said the government "is ready to hand over its full responsibilities to the unity government," the statement said.