Islamist movement Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in 2007 following a dispute over elections, complicating any possibility of peace talks with Israel.
But over the past year, the Palestinian rivals have agreed to form and recognise what they call a national consensus government, and Hamas agreed three weeks ago to hand over responsibility for the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority led by Fatah.
Nabil Shaath, a Fatah MP and Abbas advisor, says the two sides have made some real progress in Cairo by taking the easy steps first.
“Enabling the consensus government was met by unanimous support and it has practical consequences immediately,” Shaath says. “Also, there has been an agreement that within six months, there will be national elections, both for president and for legislative council.
“Even though we have not faced the difficult questions – basically about security, which is on the agenda – all other matters are proceeding smoothly and there is a lot of optimism and hope that this will finally end the separation between Gaza and the West Bank.”
Security a sticking point
Security of the Gaza Strip is the major sticking point between the two camps because of Hamas’s 25,000-strong armed wing.
Both Abbas and Israel have ruled out any reconciliation unless Hamas disarms, while Hamas itself has dismissed the idea.
It was not clear how the Cairo talks intended to broach the issue.
“We have been hearing from Fatah that Abu Mazen [Abbas's nicname] would like to see Hamas disarming itself but other Fatah people are saying that Fatah is not calling on Hamas to disarm,” says Mukhaimer Abu Saada, professor of political science at Al Azhar University in Gaza.
“In the meantime, Hamas is saying that this is a red line that will not even be discussed with Fatah, so we hear some conflicting views with regard to that.”
In any case, it is difficult to see what would lead the Islamist movement to make any concessions that involve laying down its arms.
“In Hamas’s logic, the military wing and its weapons are designated to protect the Palestinians and protect Gaza from any Israeli incursion,” Abu Saada says.
“Hamas is not ready to give up its weapons as long as the Palestinians are still under Israeli siege and occupation and as long as the Palestinians have not attained their political aspirations of national liberation and statehood.”
Israel opposed to reconciliation
Hamas has also refused to recognise Israel, with whom it has fought three wars since 2008, although its new charter adopted in May accepted the possibility of a Palestinian state within the terrories occupied by Israel in 1967.
The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Liberation Organisation recognised the Jewish state in 2008.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced opposition to the talks due to Hamas’s unwillingness to disarm but some observers sense ulterior motives.
“I think the current policy, basically since Netanyahu has been in power, is to maintain the division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the political divisions within the Palestinian movement,” says Galia Golan, emeritus professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
By doing so, Golan says, “it’s easy to argue you can’t make a deal with the Palestinians because there isn’t a unified leadership.”
There is little doubt about the significance of the reunification being discussed and what it could mean for the future of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I think it’s safe to say that the peace camp in Israel hopes that there will be reconciliation, so that the Palestinians can negotiate and speak in one voice, so that if and when negotiations resume, and if and when there is an agreement achieved between Israel and the PLO, there will be a united leadership on the Palestinian side to accept it,” Golan comments.