RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Islamic militant group Hamas has announced a number of key concessions to the rival Fatah movement that could potentially pave the way for reconciliation after a 10-year rift that has left the Palestinians torn between two governments. But ending the division between the bitter rivals is far away and far from certain.
Hamas won legislative elections in 2006 and the following year seized control of the Gaza Strip from President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah-led forces, leaving Abbas only in charge of autonomous enclaves in the West Bank.
Repeated attempts at ending the rift have failed but this time could be different.
Hamas, in financial and political distress after years of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, this week announced it was disbanding a contentious committee that has governed Gaza in recent months. It also said it was ready to hand over all government functions to Abbas and to hold elections in Gaza and the West Bank.
The announcement addressed key demands by Abbas, and the Palestinian president cautiously welcomed Hamas’ gesture.
Here is a look at what needs to happen for the Palestinians to finally reconcile, and the remaining obstacles that could still trip up those efforts.
Q: Why did Hamas make these concessions?
Gaza’s economy has been hit hard by the blockade and three wars with Israel. Unemployment is over 40 percent, Gaza’s 2 million people receive only a few hours of electricity a day and thousands of people are unable to travel abroad because the borders are largely closed.
Abbas has also been stepping up pressure on Hamas. He cut the salaries of thousands of civil servants still on his payroll and stopped paying for Israeli electricity shipments to Gaza. The cash-strapped Hamas could not make up the loss of tens of millions of dollars that Gaza receives from Abbas’ internationally backed government.
“It was not possible for the Palestinian Authority to finance the Hamas-run government,” said Mohammed Ishtayeh, a top Fatah official. “The Palestinian Authority gave Hamas two choices: either govern and finance the government, or give up the government.”
But Hamas also has been undergoing some major internal changes. Early this year, it endorsed a new political document that distanced itself from the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood group. Instead, it redefined itself as a “Palestinian national liberation movement with an Islamic dimension.”
The change could allow for closer ties with neighboring Egypt, where the government took office after a military coup ousted a president who was a Muslim Brotherhood member. Cairo also outlawed the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
Hamas held new elections earlier this year. Its new Gaza leader, Yehya Sinwar, is a decisive figure who has close ties to the group’s military wing. Hamas officials say Sinwar believes Hamas should have remained a “resistance” and opposition movement, not a government.
“Sinwar was waiting for the moment to abandon the government and return and stay in the resistance and the opposition circle,” said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal Hamas deliberations.
Q: How have Abbas and Hamas reacted since the announcement?
Abbas’ government and party both welcomed the Hamas announcement, issued after several days of talks with Egyptian mediators. The Palestinian president, in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, is expected to discuss his plans for progress when he returns to the region on Thursday.
Hamas, meanwhile, has instructed its officials to be positive and hand over senior posts to the Abbas government.
Q: What obstacles remain?
Hamas is eager to get the blockade lifted and open Gaza to the outside world. But it still wants a say on security, political and economic issues in the coastal strip.
The group has thousands of armed fighters and a sizeable arsenal of rockets and mortar shells. It has always resisted calls to disarm or place its men under Abbas’ control. It is doubtful that this time will be any different, or whether it will give up its control over key financial agencies.
There also has been no answer from Israel. The Israelis consider Hamas, which seeks its destruction, a terrorist organization and are unlikely to accept an alliance between Abbas and the group.
Q: Hamas recently announced an understanding with Mohammed Dahlan, a former Palestinian security chief who has become Abbas’ top rival. How will this impact relations?
Hamas says its agreement with Abbas will have no impact on its relationship with Dahlan, and that it remains committed to working with him.
“We have informed Egypt that we are engaged with Dahlan on a social reconciliation process that cannot be halted,” said a second Hamas official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “Dahlan is a part of the Palestinian political spectrum.”
It is unclear whether Abbas will tolerate a return of Dahlan, who has lived in exile since a falling out with the president in 2010.
Q: Would Abbas share power with Hamas?
Abbas has shown no willingness to have a partnership with Hamas, which is shunned by his Western backers as a terrorist group.
In an official statement, Abbas only said that he was “relieved” by the agreement brokered by Egypt.
Azzam al-Ahmad, an Abbas aide, said more talks on the procedural issues will be held in Cairo in the coming weeks.