Fares Akram, Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
May 4, 2011 - 12:00am

Thousands of Palestinians, led by youth activists, have poured onto the streets of the West Bank and Gaza in recent months to demand national reconciliation.

But when the leaders of the rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, signed a historic, if preliminary, agreement in Cairo on Wednesday to end a four-year schism and unify the two Palestinian territories, wariness and skepticism precluded any mass outpouring of joy.

At the Brazil coffee shop in Ramallah near its central Manara Square, men carried on playing cards and chatting, largely oblivious to the speeches of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah chief, and Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas, based in Damascus, Syria, as they were being broadcast for the first time. The sound was muted on the flat screen television fixed to the coffee shop wall.

Ghazi Awwad, a patron of the coffee shop, sat with his back to the television, smoking a water pipe.

“Nobody is watching,” he said, “because judging by our experience with previous agreements, we do not expect this one to last.”

Earlier, a small knot of women had gathered in the square to cheer the signing of the deal, but most people in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s administrative capital in the West Bank, went about their business or stayed home.

In Gaza, the isolated coastal enclave led by Hamas where people potentially have more to gain from the reconciliation, the celebrations were also relatively subdued. A few hundred Palestinians gathered at the Square of the Unknown Soldier in Gaza City. They carried a coffin, a somewhat somber symbol meant to reflect their hope that the split between the two Palestinian territories had finally been laid to rest.

Relations between the two factions, long tense, worsened in 2006, after Hamas, an Islamist group, defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections. A year later, Hamas routed the pro-Abbas forces in Gaza, limiting the influence of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority to the West Bank and deepening the divide.

On Wednesday, there were some early indications of change. Celebrators in Gaza waved the yellow flags of Fatah for the first time in four years as Hamas forces stood by.

In addition, the official Palestinian Authority television resumed live coverage from Gaza for the first time in four years, broadcasting interviews with Hamas officials, and the Hamas-run Al Aqsa satellite channel showed live interviews from the West Bank.

In Ramallah, Fatah held a demonstration in Manara Square in support of Palestinians in Israeli prisons and waved yellow flags, but the green flags of Hamas were nowhere to be seen.

Many Palestinians expressed hope that the two parties would succeed in ending their rivalry. But many also worried that the differences remained too deep, and questioned whether there was a genuine readiness to share power on either side.

“We will face a lot of obstacles,” said Qaddura Fares, a veteran Fatah leader in the West Bank and chairman of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, an advocacy organization that monitors human rights in Israeli jails. “We will have to be creative in our solutions.”

Fakhri Abed Rabbo, a resident of Ramallah, said that Fatah and Hamas could never really come together, like “parallel lines.”

In Gaza, Hani Habib, an analyst, said that Gazans were very hopeful but cautious, aware that the implementation of the agreement would not be easy. Still, the Egyptian-brokered deal has a chance of succeeding, he added, because the parties to it will not be able to retreat easily from any steps they take.

Majd Abu Salama, 22, a student, said she hoped the agreement would be completed “so that the compass may point at the struggle against the occupation,” meaning Israel.

Yasser al-Wadeya, the leader of a group of independent Palestinians who helped mediate between the factions, said in a written statement from Cairo that Egypt had set up a committee to oversee the implementation of the agreement and would send envoys to Gaza and the West Bank.

The first task will be to form a new Palestinian government of technocrats, approved by Hamas and Fatah, to work to unite the national institutions in the two territories and to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections within a year.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017