February 26, 2009 - 1:00am

Egyptian intelligence head Omar Suleiman on Thursday urged rival factions Hamas and Fatah to unite in order to establish a Palestinian state.

"Everyone is looking towards you ... and are hanging their hopes on you. So do not prolong the disagreement and deepen the division. Unite ranks to fulfill the hopes of all for an independent Palestinian state," said Suleiman, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's right hand-man.

His statement came as a dozen Palestinian groups met under Egyptian auspices in Cairo on Thursday for a long-awaited dialogue aimed at reuniting Palestinians after 18 months of schism between Gaza and the West Bank.

All parties say they hope the dialogue will lead to a new national unity government to oversee the reconstruction of Gaza after a three-week Israeli offensive and then to organize presidential and parliamentary elections.

But the Islamist group Hamas and the rival Fatah group, which dominates the Palestinian Authority, have different visions of the crucial question of how to deal with Israel.

Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since June 2007, reserves the right to fight Israel, although it is prepared to accept an 18-month truce. Fatah, which controls the West Bank, has renounced violence and puts all its hope in negotiations.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman told the opening session of the dialogue: "(Egypt hopes) that this meeting is the real start of a new period ending the state of division which has gone on too long."

"The time has come for us to turn the page once and for all," he told the Palestinian delegates, who sat at a long table in a room at Egyptian intelligence headquarters.

The United States and European governments want the Palestinians to set up a government of non-partisan technocrats. That would spare them the problem of deciding how to deal with representatives of Hamas, which they call a terrorist group.

But senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed left open the question of what type of government would emerge.

"There is an agreement on a government of national unity," he told a news conference on Wednesday night. "The nature of this cabinet is up to the committee that will be formed."

Fatah is pressing for quick decisions but a senior Hamas source said it would take more than a few days.

An Arab diplomat said on Wednesday the Egyptian mediators hoped to complete an agreement in time for endorsement by an Arab summit scheduled for Qatar in late March.

The national dialogue was preceded by talks between Fatah and Hamas on Wednesday. The two groups exchanged promises to free each other's detainees in Gaza and the West Bank.

The opening session will set up five committees on specific aspects of reunification, such as elections and the security services, and Suleiman suggested they start work on March 8.


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