Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah agreed Thursday that political control of the war-ravaged Gaza Strip will be handed to a unity government dominated by Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The agreement, arrived at in Cairo through the offices of Egypt's intelligence service, came just in time for Mr. Abbas's highly anticipated address to the UN General Assembly on Friday. The Palestinian leader is expected to appeal to the world body to set a three-year deadline for ending Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.
While the unified Palestinian factions will add to Mr. Abbas's domestic clout, the presence of Hamas in a new government risks rejection by the United States, Canada and several European countries – not to mention Israel, which certainly will lead a campaign against the Palestinian efforts.
To head off such rejection, Fatah negotiator Hassin Alsheikh told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that by Thursday's agreement, Hamas is endorsing Mr. Abbas's plan for establishing a state within the so-called "1967 borders" that delineated the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In effect, Hamas now accepts Israel's existence and the previous agreements arrived at between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.
The handover of Hamas's authority in Gaza to the PA fulfills the terms of an accord signed by the two Palestinian parties in May but was not fully implemented. That accord was intended to end years of bitter and sometimes deadly rivalry that led to Hamas's overthrow of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza in 2007.
In June, the PA blamed Hamas for reneging on the May deal by continuing to operate a parallel authority in Gaza and refusing to accept PA personnel in Gaza.
In July, Mr. Abbas even held Hamas responsible for initiating a deadly 50-day conflict with Israel by the launching of rockets against Israeli communities.
Hamas took a beating in that war, with more than 2,100 Gazans killed, many of them Hamas fighters. Now, it must cede control to Mr. Abbas if the destroyed homes and institutions in Gaza are to be rebuilt.
While Hamas did win agreement to have the PA accept responsibility for paying the salaries owed to some 45,000 Hamas government officials, it has conceded authority over Gaza's borders to Mr. Abbas's men. Some 3,000 PA security forces are to be merged into Gaza's security services and be given sole responsibility for running the border crossings with Israel. That was one of the terms of the ceasefire arrived at in August between Israel and a Palestinian delegation that put a stop to the summer's bloody conflict.
"The UN will come to an agreement with Israel and the unity government on how to run the crossings," acknowledged Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas's chief negotiator. He added that the Rafah border crossing with Egypt was not part of the talks.
The scowl on the face of Mahmoud Zahar, No. 2 in the Hamas delegation, said it all on Thursday. Dr. Zahar, a Gaza surgeon and an outspokenly radical Hamas leader, does not think Mr. Abbas is worthy of being in charge.
Just last week, standing on the remains of his bombed-out house in Gaza, Dr. Zahar told journalists that the man who heads Fatah is an illegitimate leader.
"Mahmoud Abbas is not a unity president or a legitimate one, but has remained a de facto president. We co-operated with him because he was elected president a year before us, and we gave him half the government in the agreement of 2006. But he wanted to overthrow us and incited for our death, so he has lost his legitimacy since 2007 and does not represent us politically."
It remains to be seen if this iteration of Palestinian unity will hold together for long.