CAIRO Hamas officials met Egyptian mediators in Cairo on Wednesday to hear proposals for resolving the Palestinian Islamists' stand-off with President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah group, a Hamas official said.
The meeting, ahead of a planned gathering of Palestinian factions in Cairo next month, was presented as a step on the way to ending a schism that has crippled Abbas in U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Israel. But there are few signs that the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah is becoming any less bitter.
Echoing the positions of both sides, Hamas official Ayman Taha told Reuters: "We are interested in ending the internal divisions and restoring unity to the people and the homeland."
Beyond that, however, common ground is hard to discern.
After Wednesday's meeting between Hamas officials and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Egypt's state news agency MENA said: "Egypt will prepare a detailed paper on what has been agreed, for discussion in the comprehensive meeting to which the Palestinian groups will be invited in Cairo."
Egypt has proposed a government of technocrats for the Gaza Strip, controlled by Hamas since fighting with Fatah 16 months ago. That would prepare parliamentary and presidential elections there and in the West Bank, where Abbas's movement holds sway.
Palestinians from factions other than Hamas have said the Egyptian plan would also include revamping, under foreign Arab supervision, Gaza's security forces, currently run by Hamas.
Hamas has insisted it must have a role in any new structure. Taha said these should be set up not just in Gaza, where 1.5 million Palestinians live under an Israeli blockade, but also in the West Bank, where 2.5 million live under Israeli occupation.
Taha added that Hamas wanted Islamists to be made partners in the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a bastion of Fatah since the days of the late Yasser Arafat.
Restoring his authority over Gaza is crucial for Abbas's credibility as Palestinian leader.
But accommodating Hamas could hurt his negotiations with Israel and backing by Western powers. Hamas rejects coexistence with the Jewish state.
Following the bloodshed in Gaza in June 2007, when Hamas fighters loyal to the elected Islamist government routed Fatah forces loyal to Abbas, a further crisis could come in the new year as a result of disputes over Abbas's own legitimacy.
Hamas has so far said it recognizes him as head of state, despite their differences. However, the two sides dispute the legality of Abbas's declared intention to extend the normal presidential term by a year to January 2010, in order to hold a presidential and a parliamentary election at the same time.
Hamas lawmakers, who dominate a parliament hamstrung by the rift, voted on Sunday to declare they would cease to recognize Abbas as president once he completes four years in office this January. They urged him to hold a presidential election now.
PLO representatives, including Fatah members, held talks with Suleiman throughout September. Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad said on Tuesday all PLO factions had accepted the Egyptian proposals and were waiting to hear from Hamas.
(Writing by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Editing by Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem)