- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2011

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip | Palestinians have reached initial agreement on reuniting their rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza, officials from both sides said Wednesday, a step that would remove a main obstacle in the way of peace efforts with Israel.

Even before the agreement was to be signed, however, key questions about how to unify rival security forces remained unsolved, and Israel immediately rejected the prospect of a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

Fatah and Hamas officials said the plan, brokered by Egypt, calls for the formation of a single caretaker government in coming days. The government would administer day-to-day business until presidential and legislative elections are held in exactly one year.

“We have a comprehensive agreement now. We have agreed on all the issues,” said Azzam al-Ahmed, the chief Fatah negotiator in the reconciliation talks.

It was not clear when the agreement would be signed.

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.”

Mr. al-Ahmed said that under the deal, Fatah and Hamas security forces would be unified and “restructured” under “Arab supervision.”

In a sign of the sticky issues that remain unresolved, Hamas officials in Gaza said their security forces would retain control over the coastal strip for the time being. The Hamas officials spoke on the condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement in Cairo later Wednesday.

The issue of the security forces lies 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.

Hamas forces routed Fatah loyalists and have ruled Gaza since, leaving Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas in control of only the West Bank.

The Palestinians claim both territories, located on opposite sides of Israel, for a future independent state, along with East Jerusalem.

The internal rift has prevented the Palestinians from speaking in one voice. That, in turn, has made it nearly 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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a quick rejection of a Hamas role in a Palestinian unity government. Israel refuses to deal with Hamas, which does not recognize a place for a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East and has sent dozens of suicide bombers and thousands of rockets into Israel.

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