Fatah and Hamas announce approval on Egypt’s reconciliation paper

Abbas, Meshaal, faction leaders to meet in Cairo to sign rift-ending document

Fayyad: Palestinians finalized building state institutions, but only obstacle is Israeli occupation

Egypt gas terminal feeding Jordan, Israel exploded

Israeli activities near borders with Lebanon

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah group has inked a deal with bitter rival Hamas to end their long-running feud and form an interim government ahead of elections this year, officials said.

Israel said the accord, which was brokered in secrecy by Egypt, would not secure peace in the Middle East and urged Abbas to carry on shunning the Islamist movement, which has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007 after ousting Fatah in a civil war.

Forging Palestinian unity is regarded as crucial to reviving any prospect for an independent Palestinian state, but Western powers have always refused to deal with Hamas because of its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

"We have agreed to form a government composed of independent figures that would start preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections," said Azzam al-Ahmad, the head of Fatah's negotiating team in Cairo.

"Elections would be held in about eight months from now," he added.

Hamas won the last Palestinian legislative elections held in 2006 and a new ballot is months overdue. Israel is worried such a vote could hand Hamas control of the occupied West Bank, which is run by Abbas and his more secular supporters.

"The Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. There is no possibility for peace with both," Netanyahu said in a televised statement.

The White House said Hamas was "a terrorist organization" and added that any Palestinian government would have to renounce violence. A U.S. official said it would also have to respect past peace deals and recognize Israel's right to exist.

In Cairo, Hamas spokesman Taher al-Noono said Israel was "not concerned with Palestinian reconciliation and has been an impediment to it in the past."

The surprise accord came against the backdrop of tumult across the Middle East and followed the ousting in February of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who was a close ally of the United States and had no patience for Hamas.

"This agreement is possible because the Egyptian regime has changed. The new administration is taking a balanced position," said Hany al-Masri, a political commentator who took part in talks over the past two weeks that lead to the breakthrough.

Analysts said the ongoing uprising in Syria, where part of Hamas's leadership is based, had also put pressure on the group to try to end its isolation in Gaza, a tiny coastal enclave that borders both Israel and Egypt.

Ordinary Palestinians have repeatedly urged their leaders to resolve their deep divisions, but analysts thought differences on core issues such as security were too wide to bridge, with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority running separate forces.

Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader who participated in the talks, said the deal covered five points, including combining security forces and forming a government made up of "nationalist figures".

He said Hamas and Fatah would free respective prisoners. Implementation of the accord is due to start following an official signing ceremony in Cairo, expected in early May.

Any interim government is unlikely to include Hamas officials in an effort to avoid the sort of international boycott that hit the Palestinians after the 2006 election.

Abbas is dependent on Western aid, which he has used to build up state institutions ahead of hoped-for independence.

Peace talks between Israel and Abbas broke down last year and the Palestinian president has been pushing instead to obtain backing in the United Nations this September for an independent nation on all the territory Israel occupied in a 1967 war.

Netanyahu has criticized such a unilateral move and is expected to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress during a visit to Washington next month where he plans to outline a plan to re-start the frozen negotiations.

While Fatah has supported the notion of a negotiated peace deal with Israel, Hamas has firmly rejected it and regularly fires missiles and mortars from Gaza into the Jewish state.

Some Palestinian analysts called for caution over news of the reconciliation deal.

"Previous experience has taught us not to rush into making a judgment," said analyst Hani Habib, who is based in Gaza.

"We have had experiences in the past where agreements were fully signed, not just by initial letters, where governments were formed and then everything collapsed," he added.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said that UN endorsement of his administration's readiness to govern amounted to "a birth certificate" for statehood.

Fayyad made the claim after the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process said in a report that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was "sufficient for a functioning government of a state."

He was speaking after a meeting of international donors, chaired in Brussels by Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store, along with an Israeli government official, that backed the assessment by the UN, World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Fayyad said the talks in Brussels amounted to "a landmark event" after participants "effectively recognized the reality of a state of Palestine."

He said it was "what amounts to effectively a birth certificate for the reality of Palestinian statehood."

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been on hold since late 2010 over Jewish settlement in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and the United States appears at odds with Europe over the validity of moves to resume dialogue.

Speaking for the Middle East Quartet, envoy and former British prime minister Tony Blair said "credible political negotiations" were needed on a "very urgent" basis to "revive the political process."

The European Union also granted duty-free access to farming and fishing goods from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip at the talks, and participants also including Russia and the United States backed observer status for the PA at the World Trade Organization.

In the latest signs of growing European support for a Palestinian state, Brussels granted "immediate duty free access to the EU market" of half a billion consumers for the next 10 years.

The "only exception" to the duty-free goods access is a "specific duty for imports of fruit and vegetables" under what is known as an "entry price system," which prevents Palestinian exporters from radically undercutting domestic EU growers and rival exporters.

The Palestinian Authority is one of the EU's smallest trading partners worldwide, with imports worth just 6.1 million euros ($8.8 million) in 2009.

Irit Ben-Abba, an Israeli economic affairs ministry official, said progress on governance was mainly down to Israeli customs and treasury action, and said Palestinian exporters already benefited from free-trade deals negotiated by Israel.

Meanwhile, masked gunmen blew up a natural gas terminal near Egypt’s border with Israel on April 27, sending flames shooting into the air in the early hours of the morning and forcing the shutdown of the country’s gas export pipeline to Israel and Jordan.

It was the second attack in one month on the el-Sabil terminal near the Sinai Peninsula town of El-Arish, just 30 miles from Israel. On March 27, gunmen planted explosives that failed to detonate.

The flow of gas from the main terminal in Port Said on the Mediterranean coast was shut down to stifle the 65-foot flames.

No one immediately claimed responsibility, but suspicion fell on Sinai Bedouins angered by what they see as the neglect of their areas by the central government or Muslim militants opposed to the export of natural gas to Israel.

Egypt’s gas exports to Israel have long been controversial for a population that overwhelmingly views Israelis in a negative light. Last week, Egyptian authorities detained former Oil Minister Sameh Fahmy and seven of his aides over allegations they harmed Egypt’s interests by supplying Israel with gas at rates far below market prices.

Danny Yatom, a former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, said his country could no longer depend on a stable supply of gas from Egypt and needed to speed up the development of its own gas reserves.

The Israeli gas field known as Tamar will begin producing gas in 2013 and in the meantime, Israel can generate electricity using coal, diesel and the natural gas it already produces.

On the other hand, two Israeli tanks crossed into a disputed area of land on the frontier with Lebanon in response to civilian activity close to the Blue Line, the Lebanese Army said.

Security sources told The Daily Star that Lebanese and Israeli armies were placed on high alert following a two-hour standoff, which saw Israeli soldiers aim heavy artillery at Lebanese military and U.N. personnel.

“At 7:50 a.m., two tanks belonging to the Israeli enemy went beyond the Technical Fence on the outskirts of Adaysseh border village in a disputed area before leaving at 9:30 a.m. toward the Occupied Territories,” an army communiqué said.

“Army units deployed in the area took suitable field measures and the issue is being followed up in coordination with [the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon].”

The incident occurred close to the same village which last year saw the deadliest clashes between Lebanese and Israeli troops in several years, Adaysseh, which sits a few meters from the U.N. delineated Blue Line – the boundary of Israeli military withdrawal from Lebanon – and from Israel’s unilaterally erected Technical Fence.

Last August, two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist, as well as a senior Israeli officer, were killed in an exchange of fire which erupted over a similar border dispute.

UNIFIL said no violation of international law had occurred during the confrontation. “UNIFIL immediately dispatched patrols to the area to defuse tension and prevent any escalation. On arriving at the location, peacekeepers observed that one [Israeli] tank had crossed the Technical Fence and moved toward the Blue Line pillar marked BP36,” UNIFIL spokesperson Neeraj Singh told The Daily Star.

“Another [Israeli] tank and other military vehicles were deployed in the area south of the Technical Fence. A number of [Lebanese Army] soldiers were deployed on the Lebanese side of the Blue Line in the general area.

“No violation of the Blue Line was observed. In the meantime, UNIFIL sent additional troops and reinforced its presence on the ground to keep the situation under control,” Singh added.

A security source said that the altercation started after Lebanese civilians were seen moving into a disputed area of land, close to the Blue Line, and began harvesting thyme and thistles.

In response, Israel sent in two Merkava tanks, one of which advanced to a position beyond the Technical Fence, which prompted the Lebanese Army to mobilize with heavy artillery.

UNIFIL also sent reinforcements to the scene. An Indonesian patrol with the international peacekeeping force was forced to wave the U.N. flag – a pre-agreed gesture of pacification – when an Israeli patrol targeted them with heavy machineguns.

UNIFIL force commander Maj. Gen. Alberto Asarta Cuevas quickly contacted relevant heads of both armies and urged restraint from each side.

“[Asarta] called on the parties to utilize the liaison and coordination mechanism through UNIFIL particularly on matters relating to the Blue Line in order to minimize the scope for any misunderstandings or apprehensions that may increase tension,” Singh said.

Lebanon routinely submits complaints to the U.N. Security Council over alleged Israeli violations of Resolution 1701, which stipulates Lebanon’s sovereign borders must not be breached. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in regular reports on the resolution’s implementation, has continually urged both Lebanon and Israel to avoid border altercations.

“The U.N. position is that the Blue Line must be respected in its entirety by all parties,” Singh said.

The incident followed a routine tripartite meeting between UNIFIL, Lebanese and Israeli Army heads and came before several reconnaissance flights and mock air raids from Israeli planes over Lebanese territory.

“The [13] warplanes performed circular maneuvers in the skies over many Lebanese areas before leaving [the airspace] at 9:55 a.m. over the village of Rmeish,” an army statement said.