CAIRO (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement has struck an agreement with bitter rival Hamas on forming an interim government and fixing a date for a general election, officials said Wednesday.
The surprise deal was brokered by Egypt and followed secret talks between the two sides, who fought a brief civil war in 2007 that left the Islamist Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and the Western-backed Abbas in charge of the West Bank.
Forging Palestinian unity is regarded as crucial to reviving any prospect for an independent Palestinian state.
"We have agreed to form a government composed of independent figures that would start preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections," said Azzam al-Ahmad, the head of Fatah's negotiating team in Cairo. "Elections would be held in about eight months from now," he added.
Ordinary Palestinians have repeatedly urged their leaders to resolve their deep divisions, but analysts had long argued that the differences between the two sides on issues such as security and diplomacy were too wide to bridge.
Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader who participated in the talks, said the agreement covered five points, including elections, forming an interim unity government and combining security forces.
"We also discussed activating the Palestinian Legislative Council, the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) as well as forming a government consisting of nationalist figures to be agreed upon," Zahar told Al Jazeera television in an interview.
He also said Hamas and Fatah agreed to free prisoners held by each side.
MORE SERIOUS INTENTIONS
Pro-democracy tumult across the Arab world is likely to have revitalized the reconciliation talks, with a new leadership in Egypt eager to stamp its authority on the region.
"The intentions were more serious this time and have been coupled by the efforts of our Egyptian brothers," said Taher al-Nono, the spokesman of the Hamas government in Gaza.
"Implementation will start following the official (signing) ceremony which could be within a week," he added.
There was also no immediate word from Israel, which has long opposed any moves by Fatah to form a government with Hamas, whose founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel.
Peace talks between Israel and Abbas broke down last year and the Palestinian president has been pushing instead to obtain backing in the United Nations this September for an independent state on all the territory Israel occupied in a 1967 war.
While Fatah has supported the notion of a negotiated peace deal with Israel, Hamas has firmly rejected it and regularly fires missiles and mortars from Gaza into the Jewish state.
Some Palestinian analysts called for caution over news of the reconciliation deal.
"Previous experience has taught us not to rush into making a judgment," said analyst Hani Habib, who is based in Gaza.
"We have had experiences in the past where agreements were fully signed, not just by initial letters, where governments were formed and then everything collapsed," he added.
(Reporting by Marwa Awad and Ayman Samir in Cairo, Mohammed Assadi and Ali Sawafta in Ramllah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, writing by Sami Aboudi and Crispian Balmer, editing by Mark Heinrich)