GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah agreed Wednesday to form a unity government and hold new elections — a potentially historic step toward mending the rift that has split their people between two sets of rulers for seven years.
Following the announcement of the deal, hundreds of people took to the streets in Gaza to celebrate. Crowds hoisted Palestinian flags and posters.
“I hope it will be real this time,” said Asma Radwan, a 33-year-old schoolteacher who came with her two young sons. “I came to say ‘thank you’ to the leaders. But don’t disappoint us like the past. Seven years of division is enough.”
It remained unclear how the plan would succeed where past attempts have repeatedly failed. It also added new complications to U.S. efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Both the U.S. and Israel condemned the agreement.
In an initial response, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned meeting for Wednesday evening between Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators.
Israel and the West consider Hamas a terrorist group. Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, has killed hundreds of Israelis in bombings and shootings over the past two decades.
Abbas “needs to choose between peace with Israel and an agreement with Hamas, a murderous terror organization that calls for the destruction of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
In a statement, Abbas said “there is no contradiction” between reconciliation and his efforts to reach a “just peace” with Israel. He said Wednesday’s deal would help Palestinian negotiators achieve a two-state solution.
Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas’ forces in 2007, leaving him with only parts of the West Bank. Both sides have become entrenched in their territories, setting up separate governments and their own security forces.
The division has been a major obstacle to Abbas’ goal of establishing an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as the capital. Israel captured all three areas in 1967. The split is also seen by many everyday Palestinians as a tragic mistake.
The two sides planned to form an interim government within five weeks. Presidential and parliamentary elections should be held no sooner than six months after the government is formed, said Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas government.
Similar agreements have been reached in principle in the past. But they were never implemented due to deep differences and an unwillingness to cede power.