CAIRO – The main Palestinian factions signed a reconciliation agreement Thursday that aims to mend their decade-old rift and places Gaza and the West Bank under one government for the first time since 2007.
Under the agreement, the Palestinian Authority, which now controls the West Bank, would in the coming weeks take administrative control of Gaza and police its borders, merging its security forces and ministries with those of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the coastal strip.
While both sides hailed the agreement as a significant step toward uniting the Palestinian territories — and potential relief for Gazans suffering dire shortages of electricity and medical supplies — it left many thornier issues unresolved, including the fate of the main Hamas militia and the network of tunnels under Gaza used by fighters and smugglers.
Officials from both sides stressed that the agreement, brokered by Egypt, was a first step, and that much depends on how events unfurl on the ground in the coming weeks.
The two sides agreed to begin talks next month to form a unity government that would oversee both territories. Those talks would have to wrestle with the issues that derailed previous peace initiatives.
Palestinian officials said the deal reached in Cairo on Thursday enjoyed a greater chance of success because it is backed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and, they believe, the United States and Israel.
But the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, threw cold water on it, saying that Israel “objects to any reconciliation that does not include” accepting international agreements, recognizing Israel and disarming Hamas.
In the short term, the agreement promises to ease conditions in Gaza that aid organizations have warned constitute an emerging humanitarian crisis. The Palestinian Authority has promised to lift sanctions that it imposed on Gaza earlier this year as part of its effort to pressure Hamas into talks. The government, led by the Fatah faction, cut electricity supplies to a few hours a day and stopped paying government salaries in Gaza.
Egypt, which brokered the agreement, has promised to open the Rafah border crossing once it comes under Palestinian Authority control. Egypt and Israel had closed Gaza’s border crossings out of security concerns, tightly regulating the flow of goods and people in what critics called an economic blockade of the territory.
Palestinian officials said that if all went well, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, could visit Gaza in the coming month, his first visit to the embattled coastal strip in a decade. Although he was not in Cairo, Abbas gave his blessing to the deal, which he hailed as a “final agreement,” according to Agence France-Presse.
Yet the agreement left others underwhelmed, including skeptical Israeli officials who questioned its viability. Among the many unresolved differences between the two sides is the gulf between the Palestinian Authority’s goal of achieving statehood through diplomacy and Hamas’ mission of armed resistance and liberation.