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Palestinians from the Gaza Strip celebrate the political unity deal in a demonstration at the Unknown Soldier square in Gaza City where for the first time since 2007 the yellow Fatah flag is allowed to be displayed on May 4, 2011. (MARCO LONGARI/MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)
Palestinians from the Gaza Strip celebrate the political unity deal in a demonstration at the Unknown Soldier square in Gaza City where for the first time since 2007 the yellow Fatah flag is allowed to be displayed on May 4, 2011. (MARCO LONGARI/MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

Palestinian factions sign unity accord Add to ...

Only modest celebrations in Gaza and the West Bank heralded the acceptance of a reconciliation agreement between the principal Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah. The understated response was, perhaps, a reflection of the difficulties that lie ahead.

While Palestinians have called for an end to the factionalism that bedevilled the rival parties for the past four years, the people know only too well that the step taken Wednesday in Cairo by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of Fatah and president of the Palestinian Authority, can't completely remove the bitterness between followers of the two movements.

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Many recall the internecine violence that gripped Gaza and, to a lesser degree, the West Bank, in June, 2007: Men were thrown from the rooftops of high-rise buildings, scores were "knee-capped" and more than 100 killed. As with most civil wars, it's harder to forgive and forget your own countrymen.

For all its fanfare in Cairo, all the two sides have agreed to do so far is to negotiate their differences over some fundamental issues.

First, they must agree on who will be in an interim government. It is to be nonpartisan with no members from either movement. It also is not supposed to include the Palestinian Authority's current prime minister, Salaam Fayyad. Mr. Fayyad is immensely popular in international circles, for good reason.

The former IMF economist, and member of the legislature from a small party, has brought the Palestinian West Bank to the verge of statehood. His is the name Western donors respect when it comes to providing funds.

The name most frequently heard mentioned as his possible successor is Munib al-Masri, another independent member of the legislature from the northern West Bank city of Nablus, and reportedly the richest man in the Palestinian territories.

The head of a U.K.-based engineering and development group, he has three times before turned down the job of prime minister.

But will Hamas agree? Its leaders have argued that the interim prime minister should come from Gaza, since Mr. Abbas, a West Banker, is carrying on as president.

If the two parties agree on the makeup of the government, they then must tackle the vexing matter of dividing the areas of responsibility of the two sides' military forces.

For the moment, both sides say that Hamas's al-Qassam Brigade will remain in Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority's security forces will remain in the parts of the West Bank now largely free of Israeli occupation troops.

However, who will have authority at the Rafah crossing from Gaza to Egypt? The new Egyptian administration has said it will open the crossing as early as Friday.

Passage through Rafah is expected to be quite open, allowing large numbers of people and large amounts of goods to enter. Israel's concern is that large amounts of arms also could enter the territory.

In the past, armed PA forces operated the frontier at Rafah, at times accompanied by international observers, and usually under the watchful eye of Israeli cameras. Those last two elements are not likely to be part of the new regimen, but armed PA forces are almost certainly going to be deployed there.

Beyond these very practical matters, Hamas and Fatah also must come to terms on Hamas's admission into the powerful umbrella group, the Palestine Liberation Organization. Hamas has insisted it be given a number of seats commensurate with its power.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters in London Wednesday that what transpired in Cairo was "a tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism." He said Israel would not deal with a government in which Hamas was a part.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the legislature from Mr. Fayyad's party, dismissed such statements as spiteful. The interim government, she pointed out, will not have any Hamas members and will be empowered only to run domestic matters and prepare for an election.

"Israel only wants to exploit the Palestinian split," she said.

In his Cairo speech Wednesday, Mr. Abbas repeated his call for a halt to Israeli settlement construction as a condition for resuming peace talks. In the absence of talks, Mr. Abbas is expected to ask the United Nations General Assembly in September to recognize a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza.

For his part, Mr. Meshaal said Hamas's aim too was "the establishment of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with Jerusalem as its capital."

"Without giving up an inch, nor the right of return," he added.

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