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Abbas, Mashaal to meet during Cairo visit

Jan. 9, 2013 4:21 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 9, 2013 9:35 P.M.)
CAIRO/GAZA (Reuters) -- Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi plans to meet the leaders of Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah on Wednesday in a renewed effort to help them heal their five-year-old feud, Palestinian and Egyptian officials said.

The officials said Mursi would meet individually with President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Khaled Mashaal of Hamas to discuss a stalled reconciliation deal the two agreed in Cairo last year.

Egyptian mediators had hoped to coax them into the same room, but a Palestinian source told Reuters the two will meet later in the evening, without the Egyptian president.

Abbas is reluctant to any format which would imply giving the Hamas leader a status equivalent to his own.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri downplayed the talks in Cairo, describing them as "exploratory."

"Egyptian officials aim to explore where things stand and look into the best ways to activate reconciliation efforts," he told Reuters.

Mursi, grappling with political and economic difficulties at home, helped broker a ceasefire deal that ended a brief war in November between Israel and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

Leaders of the two groups have been deadlocked over the unity agreement and have traded blame over continued arrests among members in the West Bank, where Abbas holds sway, and in Gaza, which Hamas wrested from Abbas's control in 2007.

On Tuesday, a Hamas court sentenced a senior Fatah military leader, Zaki al-Sakani, to 15 years in prison for possession of arms. A Fatah official described the verdict as a blow to reconciliation.

Thaw in relations?

The Palestinian rivals have drawn closer since Israel's assault on Gaza in November, in which Hamas claimed victory, and a diplomatic win by Abbas the same month in which the United Nations voted to recognize Palestine as a "non-member state."

Supporters of the two factions were allowed to hold anniversary rallies in Gaza and the West Bank for the first time since their split, though the celebrations produced no concrete signs of how reconciliation might be implemented.

Last year's Egyptian-drafted agreement called on both sides to form a unity government that would oversee an election and reform the Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organisation to include Hamas and the less influential Islamic Jihad group.

Abbas says Hamas is obstructing election registration in Gaza, while Mashaal says the pact needs to be implemented as a whole, with Hamas prisoners in West Bank jails released.

A senior Hamas official in Gaza accused Abbas of dragging his feet on reconciliation and slowing its pace because he was still hoping for a renewal of stalled peace talks with Israel.

"Our information showed that President Abbas would head towards reviving negotiations with the occupation (Israel) when the election in Israel is finished," Salah al-Bardawil said in a statement.

Israel will hold a parliamentary election on Jan. 22.

It has criticized Palestinian unity efforts, fearing grassroots support for Hamas, which it deems a terrorist group, could overwhelm Abbas's administration, which has long renounced violence against Israel.

Hani Habib, a political analyst in Gaza, said the Cairo talks, like previous meetings, had little chance of success.

"The talks today were meant to show something regarding reconciliation is happening but there will be nothing new," he said. "Each side has been unable to twist the other's arm and therefore each is happy with the status quo."
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