The rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah yesterday signed up to a Yemeni-brokered deal to negotiate a reconciliation, but hours after the signing an apparent dispute broke out over just what was included in the agreement.
Hostilities between the two groups boiled over last June when Hamas seized control of Gaza, routing forces loyal to the Palestinian President and Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in a week of deadly street battles.
Yemen is the latest country to try to revive talks between the two sides. The so-called Sanaa Declaration was signed after a week of wrangling by Fatah's parliamentary leader Azzam al-Ahmad and the Hamas No 2, Moussa Abu Marzuk.
"We, the representatives of Fatah and Hamas, agree to the Yemeni initiative as a framework to resume dialogue between the two movements to return the Palestinians' situation to what it was before the Gaza incidents," their joint declaration said.
Within hours, however, the Fatah leadership had issued a statement saying it was not content simply to discuss the broader Yemeni initiative – which envisages new elections, the creation of a government of national unity and the reform of the Palestinian security forces along national rather than factional lines. "The points of the Yemeni initiative are very clear. We want to implement them, not dialogue about them," Fatah said.
Mr Abbas's chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat, was adamant that Hamas must agree to end its control of the Strip before any dialogue could take place. He said: "Article No 1 calls on Hamas to rescind its coup and accept its obligations to the Palestine Liberation Organisation. If Hamas accepts this, then we can talk about a new page. If Hamas does not accept this, there won't be talks."
Accepting obligations to the PLO means endorsing the 1993 Oslo accords and negotiating with Israel for a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem. Hamas, which views the whole of historic Palestine as a Muslim domain, has consistently refused to do anything of the kind, though it is hinting at a long-term cessation of violence if Israel reciprocates.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, said that everything would be on the table in talks with Fatah but the new dialogue had to include the West Bank as well as Gaza. Hamas is demanding that Mr Abbas restores the national unity government, led by Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh, which won elections in December 2006 but was then dismissed after Hamas gunmen seized the Strip. Mr Erakat insisted that Hamas first had to allow the Palestinian Authority back into Gaza.
Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian commentator, welcomed the Sanaa agreement but cautioned against pinning any great hopes on it. He said: "The only significance is that it indicates that the two sides are willing to talk, to engage. This is new. But the differences are huge. It will take high-level involvement of Arab states to move things forward.
"I [hope] the Americans and the Israelis will stop vetoing a serious dialogue and the possible resumption of joint government."
The US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, who met Mr Abbas in Ramallah yesterday, reiterated America's commitment to a Palestinian state but offered no olive branch to Hamas, which Washington classifies as a terrorist organisation. Achieving the vision of a Palestinian state, he said, would require painful concessions by both Israel and the Palestinians.
Referring indirectly to Hamas, he added: "It also will require a determination to defeat those who are committed to violence and who refuse to accept the basic rights of the other side to exist."
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