Officials Say Hamas and Fatah No Nearer to Reconciliation

Source close to the talks: Egypt will wash its hands of efforts to mediate if next round fails.

Despite popular expectations that Hamas and Fatah would overcome their differences, there is concern in Gaza that the next round of reconciliation talks between Fatah and the Islamic movement will not take place.

According to a member of one of the five conciliation committees, the gap between the two sides is still too wide for the Egyptians to risk convening the committees. "Egypt cannot stand another failure," he told Haaretz. When asked whether the current tension between Egypt and Hezbollah and the identification of Hamas with the Shiite movement in Lebanon is influencing a possible postponement of the talks, he said that bridging the differences is difficult in any event.

Another party to the talks said that the Egyptians have called the next round a "last chance," and that Egypt would wash its hands of its efforts to host and mediate the talks if the next round fails. Last month the talks in Cairo ended with a decision that the remaining differences would be dealt with by a single, senior committee. It was recently reported that the talks would resume on April 26, but as of last night, it was not clear if the senior committee would reconvene or whether the other committees would meet.

Independent observers viewed the positions of Fatah and Hamas as taking conflicting approaches. They are interested in reaching agreement, but are dependent on outside parties that are preventing a consensus. Hamas, however, denies that it is dependent on Iran, which is opposed to conciliation, and Fatah rejects the suggestion that its side is subject to an Israeli-American veto. A senior Fatah official said that his organization expects that a Palestinian unity government would gain European and American support, leaving Israel isolated in its opposition.

In the West Bank, the failure of the talks would represent a political problem that would not directly affect local residents. For Gaza Strip residents, however, failure or endless delays in the talks would make their already difficult lives more so. The only prospect for physically reconstructing thousands of buildings that the IDF destroyed and thousands of others that were damaged in Operation Cast Lead depend upon the success of the talks. As long as Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, Israel will not allow necessary construction materials to be brought into the Strip to repair private homes and public buildings, despite the pleading and protests on the part of international aid organizations.

If a Palestinian unity government is established, there is still a chance that Israel will keep the Gaza border crossings closed, but Egypt might then open its Gaza border crossing at Rafah, at least to raw materials. In the interim, thousands of Gaza residents live in partially destroyed homes, rented apartments or with relatives.

The issues dividing the parties to the talks include the timing of elections to the legislative council, whether delegates would be elected from districts and proportional representation or solely through proportional representation, and whether Hamas would "respect" agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority and commit to them, as Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is demanding.