RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian president met Saturday with his rivals in the Hamas militant group in an attempt to end nearly four years of infighting that has complicated the quest for a Palestinian state.
With the collapse of peace talks with Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Western-backed government have turned their attention to reconciling with the Iranian-backed Hamas movement that ousted his forces from the Gaza Strip in 2007 and left him governing only in the West Bank. Palestinians seek both territories for their nation.
Hamas and other Gaza militants oppose peace with Israel and have over the past week rained rockets and mortar fire down on Israeli communities across the border. No one has been killed, but Israel for the first time deployed parts of an anti-rocket shield under development called the "Iron Dome." Two more rockets were fired Saturday, spraying an Israeli home with shrapnel.
Years of on-and-off talks between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement have produced many false starts. Even mediation by Egypt, before the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, failed to bring about a breakthrough.
Saturday's meeting in the West Bank — the first to involve Abbas in a year — had a relatively modest goal, to arrange a trip by Abbas to Hamas-ruled Gaza for more talks. He has not set foot in the territory since the Hamas takeover.
Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed said the meeting was a positive discussion but no headway was made in setting Abbas' Gaza visit.
"We hope that all the obstacles will be removed. The most important thing is to get to a practical result, which won't happen before the president's arrival to Gaza," he said.
Ayman Hussein of the Hamas delegation told The Associated Press that Abbas said he wants one government to rule both the West Bank and Gaza and that a date needs to be set for Palestinian elections, which have had to be delayed because of the division.
Abbas has previously said elections would be held in September but only if a deal is reached to allow the participation of Gaza. Hamas has said it would boycott the election.
Hamas lawmaker Aziz Duwaik said many issues were discussed and "practical steps will follow very soon," without elaborating.
Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza took to the streets earlier this month calling on their governments to reconcile.
Without unity, Palestinian statehood and a peace agreement with Israel will be even harder to achieve. Talks between Israel and Abbas' Palestinian Authority collapsed last year because of disputes over Israeli construction in the West Bank.
If a unity deal is reached, independent technocrats approved by both sides would be appointed to temporarily govern the West Bank and Gaza until national elections. The winner would lead a united Palestinian Authority.
However, Abbas has not revealed what his plan for a unified Palestinian Authority would look like in practical terms, and the level of acrimony between the sides significantly dims prospects for a deal.
An outright Hamas election victory that shuts out Fatah would also further stall peace efforts with Israel.
Hamas and Israel have largely stuck to a truce since a punishing Israeli offensive in the Gaza in early 2009.
Smaller militant groups in Gaza, however, have continued to lob rockets over the border, drawing Israeli airstrikes and shelling. And violence escalated last Saturday, when Gaza militants fired more than 50 mortar shells into southern Israel. Hamas took responsibility for some of the shelling.
Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said Saturday that his group would end rocket attacks if Israel stops its strikes. The Israeli military would not comment.
Daniel Estrin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.