January 3, 2010 / 8:13 AM / 10 years ago

Hamas in final stage of Fatah reconciliation

RIYADH (Reuters) - Hamas said on Sunday the Islamist group was in the final stages of reconciling with the rival Palestinian Fatah party after its leader met Saudi officials to try to narrow the rift.

“We made great strides toward achieving reconciliation,” Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told reporters at the Saudi foreign ministry during a visit to Riyadh. “We are in the final stages now.”

An Egyptian proposal to promote reconciliation between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group has called for presidential and legislative elections to be held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip next June.

Meshaal said Hamas still had some points to resolve in the Egyptian proposal.

Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Fatah official, said Fatah had already endorsed the Egyptian proposal and it was up to Hamas to either follow suit or reject it.

“We urge Hamas to sign it so that we begin implementing the agreement,” Ahmad told Reuters.

Meshaal’s meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal was designed to help reconciliation of the feud, Saudi officials said.

Another senior Fatah official, Zeyad Abu Ein, said Meshaal was trying to put on a good face in Saudi Arabia.

“Khaled Meshaal did not come with anything new. The Palestinian people and Fatah are waiting for Hamas to sign on the Egyptian paper for reconciliation to take place,” he said.

EGYPTIAN BARRIER

Meshaal said Hamas wants Saudi Arabia to play a special role alongside Egypt and other Arab countries to unify the Palestinian position and also to prompt Arabs to confront the Israeli government.

It was the first known meeting between Saudi and Hamas officials since Saudi Arabia brokered the Mecca Agreement in 2007 between Hamas and Fatah.

After the Mecca agreement, Hamas drove the Fatah movement out of the Gaza Strip. Abbas’s Palestinian Authority runs the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel pulled out of the cramped Mediterranean Gaza enclave in 2005, then launched a military offensive against it in late 2008 in which hundreds of Palestinians were killed and key infrastructure destroyed.

Meshaal’s meeting with Saudi officials took place ahead of an expected visit by the U.S. presidential envoy for the Middle East, George Mitchell.

Saudi officials say Iranian support for Hamas has widened the rift with Fatah and hampers a resumption of peace talks.

“This meeting should dissipate doubts about roles being played in our region,” Saudi’s Faisal said. “We must clarify the picture, especially to Palestinian officials, and also understand from them what are their orientations and goals.”

A Western diplomat said Hamas also hopes Riyadh will convince Cairo to abandon a plan to build an underground barrier along its border with the Gaza Strip.

Hamas calls the project a “wall of death” that could seal an Israeli-led blockade by smothering smuggler tunnels from the Egyptian Sinai peninsula.

“The wall could turn the table on Hamas,” the diplomat said.

Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and opposes the Fatah strategy pursued by Abbas of seeking to negotiate a permanent peace deal.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Souhail Karam and Thomas Atkins; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton

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