Palestinians seek unity in Cairo
What can be achieved by the Palestinian factions in Cairo? Khaled Amayreh, in occupied Jerusalem, seeks answers
Delegates representing virtually all Palestinian political factions were due to arrive in Cairo Tuesday for intensive talks aimed at reaching a united Palestinian stance on Israel, armed struggle and other contentious issues relating to Israeli occupation of the Palestinian homeland.
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Hamas leader Moussa Abu-Marzouk. On Tuesday Hamas threatened not to attend the Cairo talks, but reversed its decision on Wednesday
Earlier this week, the Egyptian government invited representatives of at least ten Palestinian political and resistance organisations to the talks, including all factions and groups under the Palestinian Liberation Organisation umbrella as well as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. The exclusion of two Syrian-supported factions, the PDFLP (the General command) of Ahmed Jabril and Al-Sa'iqa, from the invitation triggered a last minute crisis, as Hamas and Jihad made their participation in the talks conditional on extending invitations to the organisations in question. At the time of going to press, invitations were extended to the two factions and Hamas and Jihad announced they were going to participate. This, however, led to postponing the convening of the talks from Wednesday, as they were scheduled, to Thursday.
It is believed that high-ranking Palestinian Authority officials, including Interior Minister Hani Al-Hassan and the second most important PLO member, Mahmoud Abbas, will take part in the talks. Abbas said on Monday that "all outstanding issues will be discussed." Hamas politburo chief Khalid Mash'al was also due to arrive in Cairo for the talks as well as a high-ranking figure representing the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine.
According to Fatah official, Zakariya Al-Agha, who is also to attend the talks, the delegates will try to formulate a common political stance on the main issues facing the Palestinian people.
"The goal is to produce a document on which we all agree and with which we comply, which deals with the political situation, the type of resistance to be taken against Israeli occupation, as well as the domestic situation, including the participation of all factions in the decision-making process."
Egypt and some other Arab countries have been pressing Palestinian resistance groups, especially Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, to suspend attacks inside Israel on the grounds that they do more harm than good to the overall Palestinian cause.
Instead of just focusing on issues such as suicide bombings, this round of talks -- the broadest ever -- is likely to discuss questions of general national interest. These will include formulating a unified programme which meets Palestinian aspirations, or at the very least a programme which can avoid the negative repercussions associated with a possible American war on Iraq.
Fatah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, while reasserting their commitment to continuing resistance against Israeli occupation, have again voiced their willingness to refrain from launching attacks on Israeli civilian targets if Israel agrees to stop attacks against Palestinian civilians.
This position was reiterated on Sunday by Hamas's representative Osama Hamdan who took part in the previous dialogue sessions between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo.
Hamdan said in an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) that his group would agree to stop all attacks on Israeli civilians within Israel proper if the Israeli occupation army stopped attacks on Palestinian civilians and ended other forms of repression such as house-demolitions, land seizure and mass arrests of Palestinian youth.
Hamdan, and other Islamist officials in the West Bank and Gaza, went as far as expressing willingness to end all hostilities such as resistance attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers, if the Israeli army returned to the pre-Intifada (September 2000) lines and ended all forms of repressive measures against the Palestinian people.
Hamas's moderate posture is unlikely to be received well in Israel whose premier, Ariel Sharon, has constantly resisted every serious effort aimed at restoring calm, insisting instead on "total stoppage of terror" in return for nothing. For Palestinians, this translates as a complete Israeli victory, and a complete Palestinian surrender.
Sharon, whose forces continue to kill Palestinian civilians and demolish civilian homes on a daily basis, seems to have done everything in his power to torpedo the Cairo talks or any other effort aimed at ending the 27-month-old bloodshed and reviving the peace process.
His decision to bar PA officials from travelling to London to attend the one-day conference on Palestinian reforms was consistent with this line.
Sharon's overall stance vis-à-vis the cease-fire option is precisely why Hamas and other Palestinian groups meeting in Cairo are reluctant to accept a unilateral cease-fire.
The Egyptians, the factions believe, understand these complications as they are trying to loosen the present deadlock, in the hope that a step forward by one side would be met with another step forward by the other side.
Early reports suggested that Cairo would propose a one-year suspension of all attacks targeting Israeli civilians. However, well-informed Egyptian sources denied these reports. One Egyptian official said "Egypt would never impose or ask the resistance for a truce."
It seems that Egypt is counting on the United States and the European Union to pressurise the Israeli government into giving the proposed agreement a chance. Arab diplomatic sources in Cairo revealed this week that an American diplomat in Cairo has been keeping abreast of the talks.
In the meantime, Cairo and the EU might be hoping that Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and Fatah suspend attacks inside Israel at least during the period leading up to the Israeli election on 28 January.
Egypt may even be able to obtain at least a tacit agreement to this effect from the three major resistance groups.
But the durability of such commitment would depend more on what the Israeli occupation army is doing in the streets of Nablus, Hebron and Gaza and less on the credibility of Hamas, Fatah and the Islamic Jihad.