(Left to right) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Salim al-Zanoun, head of Palestinian national council and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal at the Cairo talks to agree a unified government. Photograph: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Rival Palestinian factions have agreed to form a unified government, which will be sworn in by the end of January. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal met in Cairo to agree the groundbreaking deal late on Wednesday after days of heated negotiation between representatives of Palestinian political groups led by Hamas and Fatah.
The talks, mediated by Egypt, are part of ongoing efforts to mend the factional divisions that split Gaza from the West Bank in 2007 and led to the collapse of the Palestinian legislative council. There has not been a functioning Palestinian parliament since.
Initial reports suggested that the announcement signalled Hamas's return to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which is internationally recognised as representing the Palestinian people. But Fatah officials told the Guardian that the militant group is yet to sign the PLO charter, which would require it to lay down arms.
Ghassan Khatib, a spokesperson for Mahmoud Abbas, welcomed the progress, saying that in order to the achieve independence through the United Nations, the Palestinian Authority must prioritise reunification.
"We are hopeful the reconciliation will be successful," Khatib said. "We cannot say we are ready for independence and statehood before we have a reunified Palestinian system."
On Tuesday, the delegates agreed to set up both an electoral commission and a deadline for the establishment of a caretaker cabinet of technocrats. Both sides agreed that all political prisoners currently held in the West Bank and Gaza would be released by the end of January.
The issue of prisoners has been a critical sticking point. Officials in the Gaza Strip point out that since Abbas promised to release Hamas prisoners held by the Palestinian Authority at his last meeting with Meshaal in November, 89 members of the militant faction have been arrested in the West Bank.
Cynics within both factions maintain that the victories won at the Cairo summit are hollow. While Hamas has agreed to accept the foundation of an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, the militant group steadfastly refuses to abandon its armed resistance to the Israeli occupation or recognise the state of Israel.
"We want really to end this [division] but I am not optimistic," a spokesperson for Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh said earlier this week, indicating that the leadership of acting prime minister Salam Fayyad remained an obstacle. "Abu Mazen [Abbas] has said no government without Salam Fayyad. This is not negotiation."
Fayyad is regarded with suspicion by Hamas.
Hamas officials also predict that heavy diplomatic and financial pressure applied by Israel and the US will ultimately prevent Mahmoud Abbas from forming a unity government.
The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has issued an ultimatum to the Palestinian leader, warning that he must choose between reconciliation with Hamas and peace with Israel, a stance confirmed by his spokesperson on Thursday.
"Hamas is openly against peace. Terrorism is not just a tactic it is their very being. The unfortunate reality is that if Abbas moves towards Hamas, he moves away from peace," Mark Regev said.
Washington has indicated it will cut millions of dollars in funding to the Palestinian security infrastructure if the current leadership unifies with Hamas.
If the new Palestinian government is established in late January, its birth will coincide with the deadline presented to Palestinian and Israeli leaders by the Middle East quartet to present roadmaps to peace. The international mediating body has requested serious proposals on border and security issues from both governments by 26 January.