Abbas, Haniyeh and Hamas leaders discuss national unity, end to division

Conflicting reports about conditions to set up Hamas-Fatah government

Haniyeh hails “heroic” Syrian people

Violent clashes erupt at al-Aqsa Mosque between Palestinians on one hand and Israeli army and herds of settlers on the other

Israel views Sinai desert as largest threat

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas met with Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in Cairo on Wednesday for talks on the formation of a national unity government, an AFP reporter said.

The long-time rivals have been struggling to implement the terms of a reconciliation deal signed in Cairo in May, which calls for the formation of an interim government of independents to pave the way for presidential and legislative elections within a year.

Representatives from both Abbas's Fatah and Hamas movements have met several times to try to hammer out a final line-up for the government and agree on who should head it.

"The atmosphere was positive," Abbas told reporters after the meeting. "We got off to good start, and we are on the path of reconciliation."

Meshaal said the two sides are "taking solid steps to implement the reconciliation," also stressing that the mood of the talks were "positive."

A lengthy disagreement about the post of prime minister appeared to have been resolved in early February, when Abbas and Meshaal signed a deal in Qatar that put the president at the head of the interim government.

The government line-up was to have been announced shortly afterwards, but the Doha agreement was met with opposition from Gaza-based members of Hamas, as well as some officials in the Fatah-controlled West Bank.

The meeting will "look at ways to implement the deal recently agreed in Doha in terms of forming an interim government, headed by (Abbas). It will be a national consensus government made up of independents," Azzam al-Ahmed, the head of the Fatah delegation, told AFP before the talks.

The job of this government would be to "supervise the rebuilding of Gaza and the overseeing of presidential and parliamentary elections," he said.

Earlier on Wednesday, members of Hamas's leadership said the deal must be implemented in a "thorough and honest" way.

"We stress the need for thorough and honest implementation of the reconciliation agreements of Cairo and Doha to end the division and unify the national front," they said in a statement after meeting in Cairo.

The Cairo talks come before Abbas and Meshaal are to take part in two rounds of meetings with the leadership of all the Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad, on Thursday and Friday.

It remains unclear when the final government line-up will be announced and elections held.

Abbas and his rival Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal on Thursday postponed talks on forming a unified government, a Fatah official said, in a further delay to ending an almost five-year rift.

The official with the Abbas-led party said the talks were postponed "because Hamas continues to prevent the election committee from registering voters in Gaza," the Islamist-ruled Palestinian territory.

He added that Hamas, which has been split internally on agreeing the unity government with the secular Fatah, has "not yet informed Abbas of its formal approval to end internal disputes on forming the government."

Abbas and Meshaal began their meetings in Cairo on Wednesday to implement the terms of a reconciliation deal they signed in the Egyptian capital in May, which called for an interim government and general elections in a year.

Representatives from both Fatah and Hamas have met several times to agree a final line-up for the government to end their division after Hamas violently routed Fatah from Gaza in 2007.

A lengthy disagreement about the post of prime minister appeared to have been resolved in early February, when Abbas and Meshaal signed a deal in Qatar that put the president at the head of the interim government.

The so-called "Doha Declaration" calls for a government of "independent technocrats" to oversee reconstruction efforts in Hamas-ruled Gaza and to "facilitate the implementation of presidential and parliamentary elections."

The government line-up was to have been announced shortly afterwards, but the Doha deal was met with opposition from Gaza-based members of Hamas, as well as some officials in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Abbas's government is based.

Hamas politburo member Izzat al-Rishq told AFP on Thursday that the Islamist movement's leadership had "taken a vote and decided with a comfortable majority that president Abbas would head the government."

On Wednesday, members of Hamas's leadership said the deal must be implemented in a "thorough and honest" way.

Abbas and Meshaal are to take part in two rounds of meetings with the leadership of all the Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad, on Thursday and Friday.

They were scheduled to discuss reforming the Fatah dominated umbrella group the Palestine Liberation Organization to allow Hamas and 13 other Palestinian factions to join.

It remains unclear when the final government line-up will be announced and elections held.

Meanwhile, Gaza’s Hamas prime minister has expressed support for Syrian protesters seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

Ismail Haniyeh's comments were the first time a senior leader of the Palestinian group has publicly rebuked its longtime patron.

Speaking after Friday prayers at Egypt's al-Azhar mosque, Haniyeh said Hamas commended "the brave Syrian people that are moving toward democracy and reform".

Assad has long hosted and supported leaders of Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, but the group has significantly reduced the presence of its exiled leaders in Syria since the start of the uprising against the Syrian regime 11 months ago.

Some of the top Hamas leaders now spend most of their time in Qatar, Egypt and Lebanon as the group tries to distance itself from Assad's brutal crackdown on opponents.

Haniyeh's speech was another sign of Hamas's drift away from its long-term backers Iran and Syria, as it finds new allies in the region. Its isolation has eased since its parent movement, the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, gained political influence in the region – including in Egypt – in the wake of the Arab spring uprisings.

Al-Azhar is a major religious institution in the Muslim world, and the platform given to Haniyeh was another show of support for Hamas.

Haniyeh asked the Muslim and Arab world to defend Jerusalem against what he portrayed as Israeli attempts to weaken the Arab identity of the city.

He recited an Arabic poem that says that the path to Jerusalem starts in Cairo.

Several Brotherhood members stood by Haniyeh as he addressed thousands of worshippers crammed into the mosque, pledging support for the Palestinians and for Hamas.

The crowd cheered when Haniyeh said Hamas would not recognize Israel.

Hamas is shunned by the west because it refuses to recognize Israel or renounce violence. However, its leader, Khaled Meshaal, has said he is ready to embrace non-violent protests as part of reconciliation with the rival Fatah movement of the western-backed Palestinian president Abbas.

Clashes briefly broke out Friday between Israeli police and “hundreds” of Palestinian stone-throwers at the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, police said.

“They threw stones towards the Maghrebi Gate and police went onto the plaza,” police spokeswoman Luba Samri told AFP, referring to the only entrance to the compound which can be used by non-Muslims. “There are now hundreds of people throwing stones.”

Police said they used stun grenades against the demonstrators and that “dozens of people” had barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Palestinian officials confirmed an unspecified number of people had barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa mosque as well as the golden-topped Dome of the Rock, but the standoff ended peacefully after negotiations with the police.

“We are negotiating with the Israelis not to storm into the mosque or the Dome of the Rock and to let people out,” Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib, head of the Jerusalem Waqf, told AFP.

Shortly afterwards, those inside the mosques left and the plaza was largely cleared, police and Waqf officials said Police said four people had been arrested and 11 of their officers were “lightly injured from stones.”

Palestinian medics treated five protesters, some of whom were suffering from tear gas inhalation, and others who had been “beaten by the police,” while doctors at Maqassed hospital said they had seen four people, including one who was hit by a tear gas grenade.

The plaza is one of the most sensitive places in the Middle East. It is referred to by Muslims as Haram Al-Sharif and considered the third holiest site in Islam, while it is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and is revered as Judaism’s most sacred site.

Witnesses told AFP police had also fired tear gas, forcing a number of women to run for cover inside the Dome of the Rock.

“We were praying when they started shooting tear gas towards us,” 58-year-old Umm Mohammad told AFP by telephone from inside the Dome of the Rock.

“At first, they were shooting at the Al-Aqsa mosque but we hid in the Dome of the Rock, and now they have started firing tear gas and sound bombs towards the gates,” she said.

“Women were terrified and screaming at first, but we got over it and started shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greatest),” she said.

The clashes followed nearly a week of unrest at the walled complex.

On Sunday, police used tear gas to disperse Palestinians who were throwing stones inside the compound, arresting 18 people.

Similar clashes erupted on Tuesday when two people were arrested after protesters hurled stones and shoes at police escorting Jewish and Christian visitors, leaving one officer slightly injured, police said.

And on Thursday, police arrested seven Palestinians for shouting insults at a group of Jews touring the site, fearing the confrontations would lead to further clashes.

Israeli warplanes launched two air strikes on the Gaza Strip early Friday, the military said, hours after Palestinian militants fired two rockets at southern Israel. “Israeli army aircraft thwarted an attempt by a terrorist squad to fire rockets at Israel from the northern Gaza Strip,” an army statement said.

Palestinian sources said two residents of the Zeitun neighborhood were lightly wounded.

Hours later, the army said it carried out another strike on northern Gaza. On Thursday night, Palestinian militants fired two rockets at Israel, neither of which caused casualties or damage.

It may be only a "dumb" fence, but it's a big one. Israel hopes it will protect the remote Sinai border from infiltration by enemies exploiting the wandering ways of Bedouin tribes and a perceived surge in lawlessness following Egypt's political upheavals.

When it is finished in 2013, the 5-metre (16-foot) high barrier of galvanized steel bars and razor mesh -- at this stage minus the smart electronic sensors used elsewhere -- will run most of the 266 km (165 miles) from Eilat on the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba up to the already-closed Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean.

For much of its course, the silvery steel fence weaves up and down among the barren brown hills beside Route 12, a lonely two-lane blacktop through the desert that was closed to traffic after gunmen crossed the border last August and attacked a bus, killing eight Israelis.

On Sunday, the Israeli army announced that the fence had already improved security to the point where Route 12 could now be reopened, although in daylight hours only.

Like no other country in the world Israel is fenced off, to the north with Lebanon and Syria, to the east with Jordan, in the centre by a barrier partly of high concrete walls enclosing the occupied West Bank, and now to the west with Egypt.

"This is a hot border now," said Israeli army Lt. Col Yoav Tilan at the fence, where welders, pile-drivers and tractors were at work in the empty desert.

On the Lebanon border Israel faces a rocket threat from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement. On the blockaded Gaza Strip a fortified front line separates Israeli forces from Gaza's armed Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas. The Jordan River valley is fenced and patrolled along its length.

The landmines, movement detectors and heat sensors that enhance the protective power of Israel's border fences elsewhere are not yet installed on the Sinai barrier. Israeli army’s Bedouin trackers daily inspect a path smoothed in the sand for any sign of nighttime infiltrations.

"This is what we call a dumb fence. It is only one part of our defensive suite," Tilan told reporters on a tour. "It has already been cut once. But they didn't get through."

Sinai was relatively quiet for 30 years, but a rapid increase in the flow of migrants from Africa since the mid-2000s highlighted how easy it was to cross the border.

The situation has only become worse after Egypt's revolution a year ago relaxed the grip of the Cairo authorities on Sinai's desert tribes.

Israel's primary concern then and now is that its enemies will exploit any security lapses. Israel says Egypt's security forces have been paying less attention to Sinai since President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011, opening the door to lawlessness that helps terrorist organizations.

Israeli military authorities say Palestinian militants in Gaza, led by Hamas but including Islamic Jihad, are trying to use the peninsula as a back door.

"The fence is part of a security concept. It is intended to stop infiltrations and terror activity in the country," said Brig. Gen. Eran Ofir, who heads the 1.3-billion-shekel ($380-million) project. It was first authorized in January 2010 but construction began only in November of that year.

On August 18, 2011, eight Israelis were killed on Route 12 by militants who crossed the unfenced border with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Three attackers and five Egyptian soldiers were killed in the ensuing gunbattle with the Israeli army, igniting furious protests outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

The Israeli army says Palestinian gunmen carried out the attack. "We believe there are other groups with the same plans right now. We could face another terror attack at any time," said an Israeli commander who briefed reporters at the Israeli army's regional command post on Route 12. "There is a constantly increasing threat from the Western border, turning into a hostile terror threat."

The Israeli army says it must treat any criminal activity on the border initially as a terrorist threat. Last Wednesday, it said a border patrol chased off smugglers and found a bomb.

"A smuggling attempt was identified, and the force that operated to stop the smuggling identified a man hurling a suspicious bag and escaping from the scene," the Israeli army said. "It was discovered the bag contained a powerful explosive device."

This was a reminder that smuggling routes over the border "are constantly being used by terror organizations," it said.

There have been no lethal attacks since August, however.

The commander, who asked not to be named, said cooperation with Egypt is good. Liaison officers talk daily and commanders meet in person every two weeks or so. But Israel hopes that as Egypt is stabilized, it will put more into policing the desert. Israel says while it has increased manpower on the border, Egypt's force is two battalions below permitted strength.

"The quality of intelligence is very low," the officer said. Some 55,000 migrants have entered Israel from Sinai since 2006, and the flow is accelerating. In all of 2006 there were 2,777. In the past quarter they averaged about 2,500 per month.

People-smugglers equipped with 4x4s and night-vision scopes deliver them to the rocky ridges north of Eilat. They make no effort to escape once they reach Israel but surrender to the Israeli army, hoping to be processed as asylum seekers.

The Israeli commander said 90 percent of Africans infiltrating Israel are economic migrants seeking a better life. Many of the migrants are educated city dwellers with skills and even professional qualifications, he said.

Their journeys are well organized by companies specializing in the trade and typically begin with a flight from Eritrea to Cairo, from where they cross the Suez Canal by road into the Sinai Peninsula, completing the final trip to the border over desert tracks at night. It takes about two and a half days.

"The Bedouin smugglers are excellent drivers by day or night. They can outrun us in most places and they know the terrain very well," the commander said.

Thousands of migrants in legal limbo gravitate to the gray economy of the interior. Israel recently adopted stiff penalties to deter the influx, permitting detention for up to three years, to make the point that the country is not a soft route to Europe.

Ahmed Youssuf, 23, is one migrant who got in under the wire, arriving two months ago from Sudan, he says. He already has a job -- as a welder on the fence.