UNITY AGREEMENT WITH HAMAS IS NEAR – says Fatah official

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Senior Fatah official and Palestinian Legislative Council member Azzam Al-Ahmad said on Wednesday that the ratification of a unity deal with rival movement Hamas is nearing, as officials are scheduled to meet over the last disputed terms next week.

Al-Ahmad said that once the last issues relating to internal security and the restructuring of the security services are agreed on in meetings in Damascus over the first week of October, party officials will head to Cairo to finalise the Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation document.

The Fatah official’s comments follow the convening of the regular Arab Parliament session, where he and Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Mishaal were invited to discuss Arab efforts to bring about an end to Palestinian political division.

Gaza government premier Ismail Haniya said on Tuesday that national reconciliation required genuine will as well as an agreement on a political and security partnership.

Addressing ministers during the weekly cabinet meeting in Gaza City, Haniya said: ‘We welcome the latest positive actions for reconciliation; we assure that we will put our efforts in order to reach a genuine stable national reconciliation.’

His comments follow days of positive feedback from party rivals after meetings in Damascus last week.

Following Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007, President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the unity government formed after general elections a year earlier.

Since then, Egypt has mediated a unity deal between the rival factions, with Fatah signing the deal in 2009.

Hamas refused, however, citing several amendments the movement wanted to be included in the deal, including the restructuring of the PLO, of which it is not a member, and a deal on security forces.

Both parties have expressed concern over the structure and jurisdiction of their respective security forces under a new deal, and mechanisms by which they would be unified under one body.

On Monday, Fatah Revolutionary Council member Faisal Abu Shahla said representatives from the rival parties had agreed on three disputed points out of four during the Damascus meeting, reaching a consensus on the formation and decisions of the PLO’s leadership, the structure of the Central Elections Committee and the establishment of an elections court.

The Fatah official said however, that while representatives discussed security issues, no agreement was reached, but that further meetings in Damascus will be held next week in a bid to reach a consensus.

Meanwhile, urging unity, jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouthi said on Tuesday that it was ‘too early’ to discuss the outbreak of a third Palestinian Intifada (uprising) amidst internal Palestinian division.

Speaking from prison on the 10th anniversary of the Second Intifada, Barghouthi said a new uprising ‘is to be decided by all Palestinians and is carried out by their will.

‘They are the ones who choose the right time, appropriate means and tools for each stage,’ he said, adding that neither experts, officials nor the Palestinian leadership ‘expected either the First or Second Intifada.’

‘To say that Palestinians are tired, exhausted and indignant towards the Intifadas is unfair, and a slander against the great Palestinians, the creators of the longest armed revolution in contemporary history and the greatest uprisings in the region,’ he added.

Barghouthi also expressed strong support in ‘sharing in the currents of the political process with Hamas and to take any final agreement with Israel to a referendum.

‘Hamas is an integral part of the Palestinians, and has popular, electoral and political leverage.

‘I am the first one who called and formulated the slogan “partners in blood, partners in decision”,’ Barghouthi added.

The Fatah leader was jailed in 2002 for leading the movement’s military wing, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, and organising attacks against the Israeli army.

He was sentenced to five life terms and 40 years and is among the high-ranking officials that Hamas seeks to secure the release of in a potential prisoner swap deal for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

However, Israel has refused to release the leader, citing the indictments against him.

On Tuesday, Israeli Knesset member Shaul Mofaz said his government should consider the release of Palestinian detainees which Israel deems to have ‘blood on their hands’ if it would secure Shalit’s release.

• US President Barack Obama sent a letter of guarantees to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a bid to save direct peace talks from collapse, Israel’s Hebrew language daily Maariv reported on Wednesday.

The guarantees were reportedly in exchange for an immediate halt to settlement construction, and dealt with issues around Israeli security negotiated between Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and head of the Israeli negotiating team Isaac Molcho, during their New York and Washington visits over the past weeks.

According to the report, Obama committed the US administration to providing Israel with upgraded weapons if a final solution to the conflict is reached.

The US would also veto any attempt by Arab nations to present the Palestinian issue to the UN Security Council for one year, and prevent Palestinian negotiators from putting settlements as the central condition to a peace agreement, the report said.

The offer however, had not been accepted by Netanyahu who, it said, was reluctant to act swiftly.

Maariv reported that Netanyahu was considering the offer, and may accept it, giving a two-month extension on the partial moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank.

Several last-minute meetings were held in the US in a bid to stop talks from derailing over the settlement issue, as President Mahmoud Abbas vowed to withdraw from negotiations if the freeze was not extended.

Abbas said he would discuss talks at an Arab League meeting on October 4th, while members of the Palestinian negotiation team have said that a stance would be announced on 30 September.

Israel’s 10-month partial moratorium on settlement construction came to an end last Sunday at midnight, with settlement councils quick to restart construction.

• Scores of Israeli settlers entered and toured the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City on Wednesday, as Jews marked the end of the religious holiday of Sukkot.

A guard at the mosque compound said that approximately 95 Israelis entered the holy site, escorted by Israeli forces, and toured the compound’s courtyard.

On Tuesday, Tareq Abu Subieh, a guard at the mosque compound, was detained for attempting to prevent 75 settlers from entering the site, where many Jews believe the First and Second Temples were located.

Abu Subieh said he received a restriction order barring him from entering the compound for two weeks.