Egypt Invites Rival Palestinian Factions to Peace Conference

In a sign of progress on a deal to end the Gaza crisis, Egypt has invited rival Palestinian factions to a reconciliation conference in Cairo this month, a Palestinian official said Monday.

Egypt is trying to broker two key agreements in the sensitive region. One is a long-term truce between Israel and Gaza's militant Hamas leaders in place of a temporary cease-fire after Israel's devastating three-week offensive in Gaza last month.

The other is an end to the bitter divide between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which worsened after the militant group expelled its rivals from the Gaza Strip more than a year and a half ago. The Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank.

The groups received invitations for the Feb. 22 reconciliation meeting, said Abdel Rahim Malouh, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP. The leftist-oriented PFLP is a smaller but key Palestinian group and is part of the Palestinian Authority. Malouh said all factions received the same invitation letter.

In Paris, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak expressed hope for "a return to calm" in Gaza by next week, after he and French President Nicolas Sarkozy discussed efforts for a one- or two-year truce in the Palestinian territory.

The two leaders helped push Israel toward ending its offensive in Gaza, which was meant to halt years of rocket fire on southern Israeli communities. Gaza's Hamas rulers announced their own cease-fire the same day, but scattered attacks are straining the truce.

Some 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the offensive, according to Gaza health officials, and the government said 13 Israelis also died.

Asked whether a long-term truce could be signed as soon as Tuesday, the day of Israel's election, Mubarak told reporters at the French presidential palace, "We discussed the date at which a return to calm could come. Perhaps starting next week."

The plan for a one- or two-year cease-fire would include the reopening of Gaza border crossings that have been blockaded since Hamas seized control of the territory, and the renewal of long-term peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, a French official said. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

Sarkozy also wants the deal to include the release of Franco-Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas since 2006, the official said.

Hamas negotiators walked away from cease-fire talks in Cairo last week because of disagreements over the blockade of Gaza and border security. Hamas representatives were to return to Cairo later Monday after talks in Syria.

Hamas wants an end to Israel's economic blockade of Gaza. It also wants the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel in return for Schalit. Hundreds of the prisoners have been involved in deadly attacks on Israel, which the militant group does not recognize.

Israel wants an end to arms smuggling into Gaza and an end to continuing rocket attacks into southern Israel. It does not want any deal to give Hamas, which U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist group, a role in controlling Gaza border crossings.

Nasser al-Qidwa, a former Palestinian foreign minister, warned that any inter-Palestinian reconciliation agreement won't have a chance to succeed without an agreement on a strategy on peace with Israel.

It is key to have a program in place that will make a future Palestinian government "part of the Arab and international legitimacy," al-Qidaw told The Associated Press. "Hamas has no real answers to the key questions on how to solve Palestinians' main problems."