- The Washington Times - Monday, January 4, 2010

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia | The leader of Hamas said Sunday that significant progress has been made in Egyptian-sponsored talks aimed at reconciling his militant Palestinian group with the rival Fatah movement.

The two main Palestinian factions have been bitterly divided since Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, leaving Western-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah in control only of the West Bank.

The split has complicated peace efforts with Israel as well as reconstruction of the impoverished and war-damaged Gaza Strip. Efforts to bring them together in a power-sharing arrangement failed and the Egyptian-mediated talks are now aimed at ending the division by holding new Palestinian elections.

Khaled Mashaal, who is based in Damascus, Syria, said Hamas still has reservations over the latest Egyptian proposal, which calls for presidential and legislative elections in the first half of this year as well as a reorganization of the security forces under Mr. Abbas’ authority. He did not elaborate.

Hamas and seven other radical, Damascus-based Palestinian factions have rejected the proposal because it does not state that Palestinians have the right to keep fighting Israel. Fatah, which favors negotiations with Israel, has accepted the Egyptian plan.

“We have made big strides in the Palestinian-Palestinian negotiations and talks that have taken place in Cairo,” Mr. Mashaal said. “We are in the final stages.”

“The problem is the completion of the [Egyptian] paper … so it can satisfy everybody’s demands,” Mr. Mashaal said during a visit to Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom sponsored a unity agreement between the two factions in February 2007. But that effort fell apart in bickering over implementation, and in June of that year Hamas ousted its rivals from Gaza in a five-day civil war.

The Hamas leader spoke after talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. A week earlier, Mr. Abbas visited the kingdom for talks with King Abdullah.

Meanwhile, in another sign of thaw between Fatah and Hamas, Palestinian security forces in the West Bank have stopped torturing Hamas prisoners, ending two years of systematic abuse, Hamas inmates told Associated Press in jailhouse interviews.

The change in practice, said to have taken effect in October, was confirmed by a West Bank Hamas leader, human rights activists and the Palestinian prime minister.

Human rights groups say their public pressure campaign helped bring about change. However, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said the decision to halt any abuse was an independent one, part of an effort to make sure a future state is built on the right foundations.

Hamas legislators and human rights researchers said they still get sporadic reports of prisoners being slapped or forced to stand for several hours during interrogation. And security forces continue to keep a close watch on Hamas activities, often arresting activists and holding them for lengthy periods without charge.

However, they said the worst behavior — prisoners beaten with clubs and cables, suspended from the ceiling while tied up in painful positions and forced to stand for days — has ended.

Mr. Fayyad confirmed a “dramatic change for the better” in West Bank prisons and said 43 officers have been jailed, fired or demoted for abusing prisoners.

Since June 2007, when Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian leader, some 4,000 Hamas followers were arrested in the West Bank, and 500 are currently in detention, according to Hamas. Just two weeks ago, dozens of Hamas supporters were detained during the group’s anniversary celebrations. In Gaza, Hamas has rounded up hundreds of Fatah supporters, who also have complained of severe mistreatment.

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