Talks to begin between Fatah and Hamas

TURNING the streets of Gaza City into a swarm of sunshine-yellow flags, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians celebrated the anniversary of the Fatah faction on Friday in the heartland of its militant Islamist rival, Hamas, the latest in a series of signals heralding possible reconciliation between the parties after their five-year rift.

TURNING the streets of Gaza City into a swarm of sunshine-yellow flags, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians celebrated the anniversary of the Fatah faction on Friday in the heartland of its militant Islamist rival, Hamas, the latest in a series of signals heralding possible reconciliation between the parties after their five-year rift.

The rally, after Hamas celebrations last month in the Fatah-dominated West Bank, added momentum to what Palestinian leaders consider their twin victories in November: Hamas's firing rockets into Israeli population centres of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and Palestine's upgrade to non-member observer state status at the United Nations.

Though it is unclear the two sides will ultimately overcome real differences, the show of unity creates a diplomatic quandary for the United States, which has urged Israel to return to negotiations with the Palestinians, but has pushed to exclude Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organisation.

Nabil Shaath, a Fatah leader who organised Friday's event, and Taher al-Nounou, a Hamas spokesman, each said in separate interviews on Friday that they expected reconciliation talks to begin under the auspices of Egypt within two weeks.

Egypt's President, Mohammed Mursi, invited the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to Cairo, Mr Shaath said, where he was expected to meet the Hamas political chief, Khaled Meshal. "The climate is excellent for reconciliation," Mr Shaath said.

"I don't think there are any more organisational issues to be settled; what is needed is to sit down and write a political program."

Friday's rally, the first Fatah anniversary celebration in Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007, was unimaginable even six weeks ago.

Though more than 170 Gazans were killed and dozens of buildings destroyed during the intense eight-day conflict with Israel, and the UN upgrade is largely symbolic, the two events seem to have strengthened both Hamas and Fatah in the eyes of the Palestinian public.

A mid-December poll by the Palestinian Centre for Survey Research showed Mr Abbas's approval rating at 54 per cent, up from 46 per cent in September.

Ismail Haniya, the Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza, got an even bigger boost, to 56 per cent from 35 per cent, and for the first time the poll showed Mr Haniya would beat Mr Abbas in a presidential election.

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