GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Rival Palestinian groups said they reached an agreement Wednesday on reuniting their governments in the West Bank and Gaza after years of bitter infighting that weakened them politically and caused the deaths of hundreds in violent clashes and crackdowns since.
Even as the tentative agreement revived hopes among Palestinians that they might be able to form a unified front, unity between the rival groups Fatah and Hamas appeared unlikely to jump start negotiations with Israel for an independent Palestinian state.
Israel swiftly rejected the prospect of a Palestinian government including Hamas, citing the militant group's stated goal of destroying the Jewish state. The U.S. expressed similar concerns.
The plan, brokered by Egypt, calls for the formation of a single caretaker government in the coming days. The government would administer day-to-day business until new presidential and legislative elections are to be held in a year's time.
"The people want to end the division ... and we say: what you demanded has been achieved today," said Azzam al-Ahmed, the chief Fatah negotiator at a news conference in Cairo with his Hamas counterpart. The two groups inked an initial deal Wednesday.
Rivalries between the two Palestinian factions began in earnest in 2006 after the militant Islamic group Hamas won elections in Gaza and the West Bank. A year later, frustrated by what it viewed as Fatah efforts to cripple its rule, Hamas seized power in Gaza in a violent takeover.
The split left Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah, in the West Bank. The two territories are separated by Israel, further deepening the divide between two groups.
The Palestinians claim both territories for a future independent state, along with east Jerusalem.
Hani Masri, a member of a Palestinian delegation that met with Hamas leaders in Syria and the new leadership in Egypt, said the political upheavals in both countries pushed the two rivals together and "made the agreement possible."
Previous attempts over the years to hammer out a deal ended in failure.
The current agreement still appears shaky. Hamas officials in Gaza said their security forces would retain control over the coastal strip for the time being. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to brief the media.
Al-Ahmed, the chief Fatah negotiator, said that under the deal, Fatah and Hamas security forces would be unified and "restructured" under "Arab supervision."
The security forces are at the heart of the Palestinian rift. Fatah and Hamas formed a short-lived unity government in 2007, only to see it disintegrate in several days of fighting in Gaza.
And while Abbas would remain in power under the emerging unity deal, the agreement would require the two prime ministers — Salam Fayyad in the West Bank and Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza — to resign. Both have entrenched their positions in recent years, Haniyeh as the front man for Hamas in Gaza and Fayyad as the Palestinian bridge to the West and its aid.
Al-Ahmed said the sides would need to agree on a new prime minister in the coming days, a process that is likely to lead to deep disagreements. He added that the new government would consist solely of political independents in order to not anger the international community.
The internal rift has prevented the Palestinians from speaking in one voice. That, in turn, has made it next to impossible to move ahead with peace efforts with Israel.
Talks have been stymied for months over a dispute about Israeli construction in West Bank settlements, but the unity issue has lurked prominently in the background.
Still, Palestinian political unity is no more likely to push the peace process forward, with Israel and the international community refusing to deal with Hamas. The group is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S., and European Union for its role of sending dozens of suicide bombers and thousands of rockets into the Jewish state.
"The Palestinian Authority must choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. "Peace with both is impossible because of the Hamas goal of destroying the state of Israel, which it expresses openly," he said, pointing to the ongoing rocket attacks.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heide Bronke-Fulton called on the future Palestinian government to recognize Israel — something Hamas has steadfastly refused to do.
Al-Ahmed said reconciliation was more important than negotiating with Israel, and said unity would make their position stronger in seeking statehood.
Palestinians intend to ask the United Nations General Assembly in September to recognize their state after decades of failed negotiations for statehood with Israel. A functioning agreement to put all the Palestinian areas under a single government would boost that effort.