- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

CAIRO (AP) - Palestinian factions trying to hammer out a power-sharing agreement are struggling to reconcile their differences toward peace talks with Israel, a Hamas spokesman said Thursday, as the Palestinian president agreed to release dozens of Hamas prisoners in a goodwill gesture during the talks.

Fawzi Barhoum, the militant group’s spokesman, said the disagreement over Israel is one of the key hurdles holding up the formation of a new unity government between Hamas and the more moderate Fatah faction.

Egypt, which is mediating between rival Palestinian factions in the talks that began this week in Cairo, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah have repeatedly said that any new Palestinian government should accept previous peace agreements with Israel and Arabs’ peace overtures to the Jewish state.

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That would include recognizing Israel’s right to exist _ which Hamas rejects.

“We were not part of these agreements, and therefore, no one should expect us to endorse them,” Barhoum told The Associated Press in Cairo.

Instead, Hamas is insisting that the concept of the Palestinians’ right to resistance to Israel be included in the political agenda of any future unity government, said a Fatah official, Ibrahim Aboul Maja.

Egypt has set a Saturday deadline for the factions to produce an agreement and hopes to host a signing ceremony by the end of March.

Several negotiators at the talks said Hamas and Fatah still disagree on other issues, such as setting a date for new presidential and legislative elections for all Palestinians. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Meanwhile, 45 Hamas members of the militant group’s political and military wings being held in the West Bank were to be released Thursday night, officials from Hamas and Fatah said.

Both Fatah and Hamas agreed to release prisoners during previous reconciliation talks held in February.

The Palestinian divide was made worse after Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in 2007 that split Palestinian territory between the West Bank, controlled by the internationally backed Fatah, and the Gaza Strip, ruled by the widely shunned Hamas.

Overcoming the distrust between them is key to moving ahead with reconstruction in Gaza after Israel’s recent offensive there. Previous unity accords have collapsed in mistrust and infighting, but this time both sides appear to have a strong incentive to reach an accord.

Hamas is under pressure to mend fences with Fatah to help end the devastating blockade of Gaza imposed by Egypt and Israel and obtain foreign funding to rebuild Gaza.

Fatah and Abbas, whose popularity took a beating due to his perceived lack of decisiveness during the Gaza war, need to find a way to blunt the challenges from Hamas.

The delegates in Cairo are working in five committees, deliberating specific issues _ from forming a unity government, holding new elections, reforming the security services, carrying out confidence-building measures and finding a role for Hamas in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Other Palestinian factions are also present.


Associated Press writer Ali Daraghmeh in Nablus, West Bank contributed to this report.

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