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Rival Palestinian factions hold talks in Moscow

The two largest Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, are holding talks in Moscow on Thursday aimed at ending decades of rivalry to present a united front in pushing for an end to Israel’s offensive in Gaza and its occupation of the West Bank.

These latest reconciliation talks come days after the Fatah-led government in the West Bank resigned to pave the way for the set-up of a new technocratic administration, but without any indication of how it would work with Hamas.

International pressure to end the five-month war has mounted as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza deepens: Israel’s offensive has killed more than 30,000 people, according to Palestinian health officials.

The US and Arab states have pushed the idea of a technocratic government for Palestinians as part of their postwar planning, having backed the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which controls pockets of the West Bank.

They hope such a government would have more legitimacy to take over the administration and reconstruction of Gaza. It is also seen as a step in efforts to make gradual progress towards talks on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But until Hamas and Fatah work out their long-running differences, it is unclear how the relatively secular Palestinian Authority could operate in territory it has lost — both electorally, and in terms of control on the ground — to the Islamist militant group.

The current talks are unlikely to result in Hamas’s “buy-in for a technocratic government, unless there is a miracle”, said Ibrahim Jibril Dalalsha, director of the Ramallah-based Horizon Center for Political Studies.

But the need for some level of agreement will become increasingly urgent, he said, if there is a ceasefire, which would require a mechanism for administering aid.

“You need to have a buy-in from all the actors. Otherwise, an insurgency is to be expected, and at least widespread protest,” he said.

While Hamas cannot be seen to have an active role, its blessing would be crucial. “You can have buy-in but no active participation, since this would be a government that has to be a partner for the international community, receiving international funds and resources,” said Dalalsha.

Fatah dominates the weak PA in the West Bank, while Hamas seized control of Gaza after an internal conflict with Fatah, a year after winning US-brokered elections in 2006.

Since then, Hamas has fought several wars with Israel, boosting its popularity, while the PA’s support has withered as it continued to have limited control over the occupied West Bank, despite Fatah largely disarming and making concessions to the Jewish state.

For Israel, the infighting between Fatah and Hamas has been a boon as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu capitalised on the divisions and rebuffed any moves towards a Palestinian state.

For Moscow, hosting Hamas — which is designated as a terrorist group by the US, UK and EU — and playing peacemaker is a means to insert itself into a conflict dominated by US influence.

But for Palestinians the refusal of their two most powerful political entities to work together has been disastrous. The two sides remain far apart on how to share what little power they have; on the ideology that underpins them; on how best to overcome Israel’s refusal to allow a Palestinian state; and on the role of the west.

That means this round of talks, which also includes smaller Palestinian factions, is seen as just as unlikely to succeed as many previous ones, including one in Moscow in 2019.

“We were not the ones proposing this, it was Russia,” said Abdel Hafiz Nofal, the Palestinian ambassador to Moscow, who represents Fatah. “And we didn’t want to say no. Logically we didn’t want to refuse.”

The resignation of Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, of Fatah, this week was a first step towards establishing the technocratic government.

But western diplomats are worried that any new administration would become an opportunity for 88-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s president and Fatah’s leader, to further consolidate power among loyalists.

“There is an opportunity here to do something broad-based and conciliatory, but in the past, Abbas hasn’t taken that opportunity,” said a western diplomat who has met Fatah leaders in Jordan recently.

“Hamas is so popular, and Abbas has no popular base, and now we are expecting him to further dilute his power?”

The challenges for any government are immense, said Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK.

That includes not just the reconstruction of Gaza, but also contending with the most rightwing Israeli government in history and with the capture of Palestinian territory in the West Bank by extremist settlers, he said.

“The formation of a new government is our first starting point,” said Zomlot. But he would not be drawn on what role Hamas could have. “This is an internal matter . . . I hear a lot internationally, did Hamas agree? It’s none of your business,” he said.

“About Hamas — there are ongoing discussions . . . but this government is a technocratic government, it’s not made of any political factions, because this is not the time for political factions.”

Without Hamas’s tacit blessing, any government would find it impossible to operate in Gaza.

The militant group’s political leadership, based in Qatar, has been shuttling between the Gulf country, Egypt, Lebanon and Iran as mediators seek a deal to halt the war. This would involve the release of about 130 Israeli hostages that Hamas holds, including some believed to have died.

If Hamas succeeds in its most ambitious demand, dismissed as “delusional” by Netanyahu, that Israel accept a permanent ceasefire and remove troops from Gaza, then its popularity, especially in the Arab world, is likely to soar further.

Polls show that since October 7, when Hamas launched a cross-border raid into Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 240 hostage, the militant group has eclipsed Fatah in popularity among Palestinians.

But Fatah has insisted on broad reforms to Hamas’s core ideology before it shares power within the Palestine Liberation Organization, the political entity with which Israel agreed to negotiate towards peace in the early 1990s.

A return to the PLO would signal an ongoing role for Hamas in any negotiations for a broader peace. The US and Israel have rejected this outright.

“We know that Hamas must be part of the PLO,” said Nofal, the ambassador to Moscow. “And if they will be part of the PLO, they need to recognise Israel — they need to set down their weapons to find peaceful solutions.”

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