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Middle East

Smoke and mirrors: the Palestinian coffee house verdict on President Abbas's unity deal with Hamas

Over tobacco and backgammon, West Bank talk turns to Israel and the peace talks pulled apart by the militant reconciliation

At the popular al-Ain coffee house in Al Bireh, a Palestinian city in the central West Bank, talk turned to Israel and power sharing over apple-flavoured tobacco and backgammon.

There was widespread praise of national unity as good and essential for the Palestinian people, but three days after the moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas struck his reconciliation with the militant Hamas movement, questions about the peace process pervaded the air like the smoke from the narghiles (water pipes) of West Bank cafés.

In Al Bireh, the twin city of Mr Abbas's de facto capital Ramallah, many of the all-male clientele of coffee houses doubted the agreement would last, or thought it would end up on the shelf like previous reconciliation deals to reunify the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"A month from now it will all be finished. Both sides know it is all theatre," said Omar Mohammed, 26, a graduate of nearby Birzeit University in computer science.

"It's all a game, it is public relations. Each side knows the public wants reconciliation and they want to show that they want it. But signing a paper is one thing and implementing on the ground another."

Pacts struck in 2011 and 2012 did not translate into action and the rivalry that has bedevilled Palestinian politics since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2006 persisted.

The latest agreement calls for the establishment of a national unity government, headed by Mr Abbas, to be formed within five weeks and to shepherd Palestinians to new elections – their first since 2006 – late this year.

On Friday, the latest American-sponsored attempt to fashion a lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians appeared to lie in ruins after Barack Obama said it was time for a "pause" in the process, effectively drawing a line under his administration's efforts to reconcile the two sides. The Palestinians' unity deal was seen as the final nail in the process.

Nidal Abu Rub, who works as finance manager for a non-governmental organisation, praised the unity deal. "Imagine you are in a house and you have a wife and kids. If your wife and you go in separate directions you have a weak house. If you go in the same direction you have a strong house," he said.

In Mr Abu Rub's view, the main factor influencing Mr Abbas to pursue the reconciliation was Israeli occupation policies, including building at the illegal settlements on the land of the future Palestinian State. "The path of negotiations with Israel is closed," he said. "It believes in annexation not peace."

The 46-year-old added that it remained to be seen if the reconciliation will endure and he predicted Israel may try to drive the parties apart. "Israel could create a small crisis by killing someone in Gaza, and Hamas would react," he said. "Israel is the troublemaker, not Hamas."

But Amjad Mohammed, an official in the interior ministry of the Palestinian Authority, criticised the Islamist movement. "Hamas doesn't want reconciliation. It wants all the power in its hands. That's the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas wants to rule over everything."

In Mr Mohammed's view, Hamas agreed to the pact because its position is weak after the fall of its main ally, the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. "It's a temporary interest. Maybe in two weeks all this will be finished, maybe not."

He backed Mr Abbas because he was "moderate politically and knows what he wants". He added: "Most of the Israelis view him as moderate and he has international support for his views."

Although Israel suspended negotiations with Mr Abbas over the unity move, Mr Mohammed does not rule out that the talks will be resumed.

"I think there's a chance for peace with the Netanyahu government or another government," he said. "There can be a solution, a partial solution and things will move slowly but things can change. But freezing settlements must be a condition to show that they want peace."

In a speech before top leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation at his Ramallah headquarters yesterday, Mr Abbas stressed that he is still interested in extending peace talks with Israel that are due to expire in two days, provided there is a settlement freeze and the release of a group of Palestinian prisoners Israel had been due to free on 29 March.

The extension should be for three months and deal with Palestinian proposals for defining the border, he said. "There's no obstacle to us restarting the talks, but the 30 prisoners need to be released," he added.