Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned a new unity pact between the leading Palestinian factions, calling it a "tremendous blow" to chances for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Netanyahu spoke after the reconciliation deal was signed May 4 in Egypt between the Palestinian Fatah movement, which backs negotiating a peace agreement with Israel, and the Iranian-backed militant Islamist Hamas movement, which calls for Israel's destruction.
Speaking on a visit to London, Netanyahu called the agreement a "tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism."
Netanyahu said any party that wants to end Israel's existence cannot be a partner for peace with the Jewish state.
Speaking at a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Netanyahu cited the pro-democratic movements that have occurred in Middle Eastern states recently, saying a "great struggle" is now under way in the region.
"We've had an enormous convulsion in the Middle East, and there is a great struggle now under way now between the forces of democracy and moderation, and the forces of tyranny and terror.” Netanyahu said.
“I think the fate of the Middle East and the fate of peace hangs in the balance."
Israel's ally the United States has called on the Palestinian factions to implement their reconciliation accord in a way that advances the prospects for peace with Israel.
The United States government officially lists Hamas as a terrorist organization.
In Cairo, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal shook hands on the formal accord designed to end a four-year rift between Fatah and Hamas.
Abbas said the deal would end the historic divisions between the two sides.
"We announce to the Palestinians that we have turned over forever the black page of division," he said. "We announce the good news from Egypt, which has always carried its national and historical responsibility toward the Palestinian people. Four black years have affected the interests of Palestinians. Now we meet to assert a unified will."
Meshaal, for his part, said that Hamas' only battle was with Israel and not other Palestinian factions.
"We are one people and we have one main issue," Meshaal said. "Therefore, we must have one organized authority and one decision. Our aim is to establish a free and completely sovereign Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, whose capital is Jerusalem, without any [Israeli] settlers and without giving up a single centimeter of land and without giving up on the right of return [of Palestinian refugees]."
Hundreds of Palestinians marched in Gaza City in support of the accord, which also marked the first time in years Fatah and Hamas lawmakers were present together in one rally.
The reconciliation deal, which was brokered by Egypt last week, envisages the formation of a unity government and elections within a year. The two men did not publicly sign the accord, however, leaving that to aides. And the ceremony was delayed by an hour, reportedly because of a disagreement over whether Meshaal would sit on stage alongside Abbas or among other Palestinian delegates in the hall. In the end, he did not share the podium with Abbas.
Hamas, which de facto runs the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which rules over areas of the West Bank, hope the accord will be instrumental in eventually creating an independent Palestinian state.
On May 3, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa met Meshaal in Cairo, saying at a joint news conference that the deal would put pressure on Israel.
"God willing, tomorrow you will see the signing of the reconciliation [accord between the Palestinian factions] that will take us to a new Arab era and a new Palestinian era through which Israel will be put in a tight spot," he said. "We need to tell the world about the new Arab-Palestinian [unity] that should be respected."
Hamas and Fatah have been bitterly divided since June 2007, when Hamas took control of Gaza. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, and Israel -- along with the United States and the European Union -- regards Hamas as a terrorist organization.
The two have had an uneasy and unofficial truce since Israel's January 2009 military operations in the territory. Hamas, however, has repeatedly rejected negotiations with Israel.
The Quartet of Mideast mediators -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia -- has demanded that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel.
Abbas declared that such action was not required of Hamas, and Nabil Shaath, an aide to Abbas, told Israel Radio ahead of today's ceremony that these demands "are unfair, unworkable and do not make sense."
Western powers haven’t yet said whether they will deal with the coalition government that will be formed in the wake of the unity accord. U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing May 2 in Washington that the United States would assess the "composition" of any new Palestinian government before taking steps on future aid to the country.
Hamas In Minority
Alireza Nourizadeh, of the London-based Center for Arab and Iranian Studies, said, however, that Hamas is less popular today than it was years ago and is likely to be a minority in any new government.
"Palestinians are insisting that the election should take place under the supervision of the international community and the UN," Nourizadeh said. "Why should Israel, which considers itself the only democratic country in the Middle East, be concerned about the choice the Palestinian people make [in this election]? After all, Palestinian people have the right to elect the government they want.
"Hamas is different from what it was six or seven years ago. It has lost the popularity it had before, and without any doubt it will be in the minority after the next election. Therefore, when the next government will be formed by secularists -- those affiliated to Fatah and other secularist Palestinian groups -- Israel has no reason to be concerned."
Many are wary of the deal, saying there are many important issues, including control of security force, that it does not resolve.
But at least in Gaza, residents are excited about the positive impact the deal will have on their lives. Egypt's Foreign Ministry announced earlier this week that it intends to reopen its border with Gaza.
Under President Hosni Mubarak's regime, the Rafah border was only open intermittently for crucial food and medical supplies and to allow through those seeking medical treatment or study outside of the enclave.
A senior Fatah official, Sabri Saydam, told Reuters that the deal gave Palestinians hope for a united future.
"Reopening the crossings, the easing of goods, and ending the siege over Gaza, as you know, are priorities that came in the agreement and we are interested in ending as soon as possible," Saydam said, "so that the Palestinian citizen will feel that signing this unity agreement is not just a celebration but also a real step with practical results which everyone is looking eagerly towards and wants to achieve results toward the unity between the Palestinians."
Hundreds of people marched to the Square of the Unknown Soldier in Gaza City, waving Palestinian, Hamas, and Fatah flags. They danced in circles and let off firecrackers as they celebrated the accord.
Uzi Rabi, head of the department for Middle East studies in Tel Aviv University, told Reuters that the opening of the border with Egypt, however, was not likely to come unconditionally.
"If somebody thinks that from now on, after the opening up of the Rafah crossing, that Hamas would be allowed to do whatever it wants, I won't buy that because Egypt realizes how dangerous could be the renewal of ties between the Hamas and the Muslim brothers. And the ongoing relations between Hamas and the Muslim Brothers could damage Egypt's stability, and I think that the Egyptians will not turn a blind eye to that kind of a possibility. So it is being opened, the crossing -- I think that the Egyptians will be there in order to make sure that everything goes in line with what they would like actually to be."