GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A negotiator said Monday he expects a Palestinian unity government to be announced later this week in what would be a first significant step toward ending the crippling rift between Hamas and Fatah.
The longstanding conflict between the rival factions peaked in 2007, when Hamas drove the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas out of the Gaza Strip, leaving his forces confined to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Since then, both sides have run rival governments in their respective territories on opposite ends of Israel. Abbas seeks both the West Bank and Gaza as parts of a future Palestinian state, and the internal rift is a major impediment to any potential peace deal.
Azzam al-Ahmed, a Fatah negotiator, traveled to Gaza on Monday for what he said would be a final round of talks with Hamas leaders about the Cabinet lineup. A temporary government of technocrats is to prepare for general elections in 2015.
"The declaration of the new government is Thursday," al-Ahmed told reporters.
He said Rami Hamdallah, prime minister of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, would stay on to head the unity government. Abbas had previously agreed to take on the job of prime minister in addition to his position as president, but now seems reluctant to assume additional responsibility.
Ehab Ghussein, a Hamas government spokesman, said he expected the Cabinet lineup to be announced in the coming days, but did not give a date.
Despite mutual assurances of good will, last-minute disagreements over job assignments could still cause delays. Negotiations about the Cabinet lineup began in April and were to be completed by late May.
Repeated reconciliation attempts have failed, but the rivals appear more flexible this time because both are struggling with crises.
Hamas faces severe money problems and has been unable to cover the government payroll because of a tightening border blockade of Gaza by neighboring Egypt over the past year. Israel continues to enforce its border blockade of Gaza, in place since 2007.
Abbas, meanwhile, needs a new political strategy after the latest attempt to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood with Israel collapsed in April. Abbas is skeptical about reaching a deal with Israel's hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
It's not clear if the U.S. and Europe, which shun Hamas as a terror group, would deal with a unity government. The European Union has indicated it would do so if Abbas sets the tone — something he said he would do. The U.S. said it would study the program of the new government before making a decision.
Israel opposes contacts with any Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas, which is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state.