Accord is signed by Palestinians to stop feuding

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 09-Feb-07 | Author: Hassan Fattah| Source: International Herald Tribune

From left, Khaled Meshal, the exiled leader of Hamas; President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah; Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of Hamas; and Rawhi Fattuh, an aide to Mr. Abbas, prayed Thursday in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where they signed a cease-fire.
MECCA, Saudi Arabia: The main rival Palestinian factions agreed late Thursday to form a government of national unity aimed at ending a wave of violence between them and an international boycott.

The agreement, signed here in Islam's holiest city under Saudi auspices, appeared likely to end, at least for now, weeks of fighting that had ravaged the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Still, it seemed to stop short of meeting the demands of the international community for resuming relations and support for the Palestinian Authority.

The accord, signed by Khaled Meshal of Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and leader of Fatah, its main rival, is the first time that the two parties have agreed to share authority. It sets out principles for a coalition government, like the distribution of ministerial portfolios, but leaves many of the details for later.

Israel and international powers have said that they would lift their boycott of the Palestinian government imposed after the victory by the militant group Hamas a year ago only if it agreed to three conditions: recognize Israel, renounce violence against Israel and abide by previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Mecca accord addresses only the last of those and does so rather imprecisely, promising "respect" for previous agreements between the Palestinians and Israel.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, said, "The international community has made it clear that in order to be able to have a broader relationship with the Palestinian Authority government, that those principles are going to have to be met." He added that officials were still studying the accord.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will meet with Abbas and Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, on Feb. 19 in Jerusalem to work on a broader peace initiative.

In Mecca, Abbas read out a statement during the signing ceremony where he re-appointed Ismail Haniya as prime minister and called on the new government to abide by "international law" and agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization. This appeared aimed at appeasing concerns of the international community.

The British foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, called the agreement "interesting" but said it would require further study.

In the streets of Gaza, Palestinians broke out in celebration as the agreement was being announced, with members of Hamas and Fatah firing into the air.

Hamas officials in Mecca bristled at the insistence of accepting Israel, insisting that any concessions they offered would not be enough.

"I wonder why the issue of recognizing Israel is the key to everything?" Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the Hamas government, said earlier Thursday. "We are interested to end the siege but not at any cost."

He added: "We try to balance between our Palestinian national constraints and our opening up to the international community. Israel is not ready to deal with any Palestinian side unless the Palestinians deal with the Israeli conditions."

Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Olmert, said, "Israel expects the new Palestinian government to respect all three of the international community's principles," but she declined to say whether the new Palestinian government had met any or all of those benchmarks. Israeli officials say that would require further evaluation.

Mostly, the Mecca accord promises to end the fighting that has claimed the lives of more than 90 Palestinians, with each side pledging to ease the tensions and turn a new page in their history. The two sides have signed several truces, but each one has broken down.

"These dark days will be completely gone," Meshal announced in signing the agreement. "Our Arabic, Islamic unity has brought us together, shining again." He added that having signed the accord in the holy city lent it greater significance.

Under the terms of the deal Haniya, the current prime minister, will form a new government with Hamas controlling a majority of the seats while Fatah will control several and have a number of "independent" Palestinians sitting in the remainder. The new government is supposed to be formed within five weeks.

The exact breakdown was not immediately clear late Thursday night. The critical role of interior minister is expected to go to an independent official, a Hamas spokesman said, while Abbas will keep control of some security agencies, including the Presidential Guard.

That division of authority has been an important factor in the recent Palestinian infighting, which has often pitted Fatah security force members against Hamas security force members in gun battles on the streets of Gaza.

Hamas rejects Israel's very existence and calls for its destruction. Fatah, which began with that same philosophy in the late 1950s, favors a two-state solution with Israel returning to its borders from before the 1967 war and a Palestinian state built in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

But there has been talk by some Hamas officials of the possibility of agreeing to the two-state solution implicitly without specifically recognizing Israel. Whether that would end the international boycott is unclear.

Thursday's agreement concluded an emergency two-day summit meeting steeped in religious significance and invested with the prestige of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The Palestinians sat in a room high above Mecca's Grand Mosque, while Saudi officials remained outside, providing assistance when requested. Many worshipers below were aware of the ongoing deliberations, and could look up and see the figures of the Palestinians moving around.

Perhaps the biggest winner from the deal is Saudi Arabia, which has sought to build on its earlier success in 1989, when, in a similar summit meeting in the mountain town of Taif, it brokered an end to the 15-year Lebanese civil war. In scenes broadcast on Saudi Television, King Abdullah sat flanked by Abbas and Meshal, each of whom signed the document, then read a brief speech.

"They have proved they are worthy of trust and have proven they can stop the fighting," the king said.

Saudi Arabia's effort to mediate between the Palestinian factions reflects a general agreement among leaders in the Arab world that the first step to stabilizing the burgeoning conflicts in the region and parrying the growing influence of Iran is resolving the Palestinian conflict.

The Saudis, who have traditionally preferred to work quietly behind the scenes, have grown increasingly alarmed at the chaos engulfing the region and have stepped forward to try to use their religious credibility, and vast oil wealth, to try to preserve the status quo and serve as a counterpoint to Iran.

The Saudis may hold a similar meeting for Lebanon's warring factions, Hezbollah and the so-called March 14 movement, which have come to blows in recent weeks.

For the Palestinian leaders, too, the talks offered an opportunity to improve a public image increasingly marred by contempt and criticism in the Arab world for allowing the bloodshed to reach such levels.

Many saw the meeting as a last chance to prevent an all-out civil war between the feuding Palestinian factions, which have broken numerous cease-fire agreements since clashes began last summer.

"Hamas and Fatah have not let their people down," Meshal declared. "To the heroes in Palestine, I say these are the leaders of the Palestinian people."