A new round of Palestinian reconciliation talks experienced its first sign of trouble on Tuesday as the Hamas militant group said it would not give up its vast weapons arsenal, putting it at odds with both the rival Fatah movement and Israel.
The tough comments by Hamas' supreme leader, Ismail Haniyeh, provided a reminder of the long road that lies ahead after this week's launch of talks with President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement.
Abbas' prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, is in Gaza, where he has received a warm welcome in what is by far the most ambitious attempt by the Palestinian rivals to end a 10-year rift. But Hamdallah's visit is largely symbolic, and the negotiations on key sticking points, including the future of Hamas' military force, only start next week in Egypt.
In a TV interview, Haniyeh said his group, which has fought three wars with Israel, would never give up its armed struggle against the Jewish state.
"As long as there is occupation on the ground, our people have the right to possess weapons and resist the occupation with all forms of resistance," he told the private On TV station.
In a gesture to Abbas, he said Hamas will not go back to war against Israel unilaterally. "We are ready to negotiate with the Palestinian factions and Fatah on unifying the decision of peace and war," he said.
Such concessions are unlikely to satisfy Abbas, who issued his own tough statement late Monday saying "everything must be in the hands of the Palestinian Authority."
He said specifically he would not agree to reproduce the "Hezbollah model" of Lebanon, where the armed militant group acts freely under the watch of a weak central government.
Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, said his government will not accept a reconciliation deal between rival Palestinian factions that puts Israel at risk.
He said any deal must include recognizing Israel, disbanding Hamas' military wing and cutting ties with Hamas' patron Iran.
"We are not prepared to accept bogus reconciliations" in which the Palestinians reconcile "at the expense of our existence," he said.
A day after his festive arrival, Hamdallah held his first Cabinet meeting in Gaza on Tuesday in another symbolic step toward reconciliation. His Cabinet ministers were then to head to their local offices to meet with staffers.
Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel's destruction, seized control of Gaza from Abbas' forces in 2007, leaving the Palestinians divided between rival governments in territories located on opposite sides of Israel. The division has been a major obstacle to Palestinian hopes of establishing an independent state.
While previous reconciliation attempts have failed, years of international isolation and steadily worsening conditions in Gaza have pushed Hamas toward compromise.
The real work begins next week in Cairo, where Egyptian mediators will host talks between the Palestinian rivals. There was no set time frame for the negotiations.
Egyptian intelligence chief Khaled Fawzy arrived in Gaza on Tuesday to deliver a boost of support. It was the highest ranking Egyptian official to visit Gaza since 2007.
"I'm convinced that you are able to implement your promises for the benefit of your people," he said. "I'm waiting for you in Cairo, your home, and you will do it and succeed. History will register that you have unified your people."
Several factors appear to be working in favor of reconciliation.
Under Hamas' watch, Gaza has fallen deeper into poverty, battered by a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade and three devastating wars with Israel. Unemployment is estimated at over 40 percent, Gaza's 2 million residents are virtually barred from traveling abroad, and residents have electricity for only a few hours a day.
Hamas' newly elected leadership has said it prefers to return to the group's roots as a "resistance" movement battling Israel.
And perhaps most critically, Hamas has improved relations with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who is poised to play a critical role as mediator. El-Sissi also has good ties with Israel and the U.S. and could help sell any deal to Netanyahu.
In a videotaped speech delivered by his intelligence chief, el-Sissi called the reconciliation efforts "a historic day" and praised the "determination" of the sides to reach an agreement.
"I sent the intelligence head to attend this occasion to emphasize that Egypt is eager to present all kinds of aid to accomplish the mission," he added.
The question now is whether that Egyptian offer of help will be enough to get the sides to soften their positions.
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