Palestinian electoral officials in Gaza

Election officials from the West Bank arrived in the Gaza Strip on Monday to prepare the way for a long-overdue vote, taking a key step toward repairing a five-year rift between Palestinians.

The delegation crossed the Israeli border into Hamas-ruled Gaza to formally begin its work on Monday, said official Jamil al-Khaldi. He said the delegation would need at least six weeks to update voter records.

Palestinian rivals hope to hold new elections within six months in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, choosing a new government to replace the fragmented system under which they have lived for the past five years.

The two territories, which flank different sides of Israel, have been ruled by different governments since Hamas fighters seized control of Gaza in June 2007, pushing out forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas now oversees Palestinian affairs in the West Bank.

The rivals agreed this month to form a technocrat unity government until elections are held. A date for elections has not been set.

Similar agreements have broken up in the past. They have collapsed over international resistance to the militant group Hamas joining a Palestinian government, fights between rivals over who should take what posts, and over the fate of Hamas' security forces that rule Gaza.

The Palestinians claim the West Bank and Gaza along with Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem for their future state.

Reconciliation is seen as essential toward establishing a Palestinian state, though Israel and the international community have threatened to boycott any Palestinian government that includes Hamas unless it agrees to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.

Hamas, an Islamic militant group, has rejected these international conditions, although it says it is open to a lengthy cease-fire with the Jewish state.