Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas agreed late on Wednesday to resolve the fate of prisoners held by both sides and stop their media war on the eve of Egypt-brokered reconciliation talks.
The accord came as the feuding movements held talks aimed at paving the way for a unity government ahead of yesterday’s start of dialogue between Fatah, the secular movement headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip.
The two sides said in a joint statement they reached an agreement on resolving the prisoners issue “in a timeline not going beyond the end of the inter-Palestinian dialogue meetings.”
“A certain number of detainees will be freed right at the beginning of the dialogue,” said the statement from Azzam al-Ahmad, leader of the Fatah bloc in the Palestinian parliament, and senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar.
“Other detainees will be freed successively, so that this issue will be totally closed before the end of the national Palestinian dialogue,” it said.
Zahar said 80 Hamas members held in the West Bank, which is controlled by the moderate Fatah movement, have been released and that 300 were still being held.
The Islamist movement Hamas, for its part, has lifted the house arrest of a number of Fatah members in the Gaza Strip.
The two factions have long been rivals, but their feuding boiled over in June 2007 when Hamas seized control of Gaza, routing forces loyal to Abbas after days of deadly street battles.
Egypt had originally called for Palestinian reconciliation talks in November, but Hamas withdrew at the last minute, complaining that Fatah was continuing to arrest Hamas members in the West Bank.
The reconciliation process was relaunched by Egypt after Israel’s 22-day war on Hamas last month.
“The climate is positive and promising,” Hamas political bureau member Ezzat Resheq told journalists after Wednesday’s talks. “We hope for positive results.”
Ahmad cited a “real desire on both sides to settle these questions ... to achieve reconciliation, a urgent necessity above all because the [Israel-Palestinian] peace process is not progressing and nor are efforts toward a truce.”
The stakes were high for yesterday’s negotiations as billions of dollars of funds to rebuild the Gaza Strip may be available if terms set by international donors can be met before an aid meeting next week in Egypt.
Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian general election, but its government was boycotted by Israel and the West, and attempts at a national unity government failed.
Yesterday’s conference, which will also bring in other Palestinian factions, stems from Egyptian proposals for a lasting ceasefire following Israel’s onslaught on Gaza from Dec. 27 to Jan. 18, in which more than 1,300 people were killed and buildings and infrastructure destroyed.
Cross-border violence has continued since then in the absence of a full ceasefire.
On Wednesday, Israeli warplanes launched air strikes along Gaza’s border with Egypt as delegates from three Palestinian factions were crossing at a nearby terminal, witnesses said, after rockets were fired from the territory.
Fawzi Barhum, Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said the preparatory meetings were to try to “overcome the hurdles to dialogue, especially on political detainees and media campaigns, in order to ensure the success of the dialogue.”