Tom Perry
June 10, 2010 - 12:00am

The prospect of Israel easing its blockade of Gaza has generated new pressure on Fatah and Hamas to end their feud, but the chances of the rival factions restoring Palestinian unity soon appear faint.

Turkey, seeking to build on the kudos it has won among Arabs for challenging the blockade, has offered to mediate between the rivals and its prime minister has said the division must end.

"For the peace in Palestine, it is necessary to overcome the problems between Fatah and Hamas," Tayyip Erdogan said this week. "There shouldn't be divisions anymore, there can't be."

Those words resonate with Palestinians who are sick of the infighting. But turning them into reality will not be easy.

Obstacles include the deep mistrust between the parties and the possibility of resistance from other regional states already heavily involved in Palestinian politics and unwilling to surrender influence.

Adding to the complications, a stronger Hamas, emboldened by a loosening of the blockade, is likely to drive an even harder bargain on the issues at the heart of the Palestinian crisis.

"I think Turkey can play a role but it is limited," said George Giacaman, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank. "Both parties have their alliances and their alliances are more important than any Turkish pressure." The Palestinian division remains hostage to international rivalries stretching from Cairo to Tehran and from Damascus to Washington. Hamas is backed by Syria and Iran while the Palestinian Authority, led by Fatah, has an array of sponsors including the United States and Egypt.

Hostility between the groups spilled briefly into civil war in 2007 when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. The group had defeated Fatah in a legislative election the previous year but struggled to govern in the face of Western sanctions imposed because of its hostility towards Israel.

Three years on, the mandate of the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas remains restricted to self-rule areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He continues to pursue the policy of peace talks with Israel that sets him at odds with Hamas.

The division has driven a wedge between territories where U.S.-brokered peace talks aim to establish a Palestinian state.

Mistrust is high between the groups, which routinely accuse each other of detaining each others activists and worse.

Both sides say they want to restore Palestinian unity, but have also said the issue should not be linked to an easing of the blockade of Gaza, imposed by Israel on the territory for four years to weaken Hamas.

Abbas, also the Fatah leader, has asked a delegation to meet Hamas leaders to discuss reconciliation. The gesture has been met by scepticism from Hamas. "Abbas is not serious about reconciliation," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Abbas insists that Hamas agree to an Egyptian-drafted plan to bring about reconciliation. That is a non-starter for the group, which has rejected elements of the document.

Turkey, having won the respect of Hamas for its tough stance towards Israel, may have a role to play in breaking the impasse, though Egypt, whose ties with Hamas are strained, will be loath to make way for Ankara.

Erdogan said this week Hamas had given it a green light to mediate. "They said we want this issue to be resolved. We have to see the same approach from Fatah as well," he said.

Abbas, speaking after talks with Erdogan this week, said he valued the efforts of Turkey, which he said did not have "private agendas" in Palestinian politics.

"We hope that it pushes in the direction of (Hamas) signing of the Egyptian document," Abbas said.

But Hamas, emboldened by signs the blockade could be eased, will feel its hand has only been strengthened and will be even less willing to compromise on the issues at the heart of the Palestinian crisis.

They include the fate of Hamas security forces numbering some 13,000 men and the group's refusal to recognise Israel.

Hamas blames attempts to force it to effectively recognise Israel and renounce violence for thwarting recent reconciliation proposals. The group blames the United States, Israel's closest ally, for insisting on the terms.

"Hamas cannot agree to the conditions under any circumstances," said Palestinian political analyst Hany al-Masri, a member of the delegation Abbas has asked to visit Hamas leaders.

He said both Abbas and Hamas have a genuine interest in reconciliation and recent events had generated momentum towards that. "But international and regional parties are still having a negative impact," he added.


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