Palestinian factions gathered in Cairo on Tuesday signed a reconciliation deal that will pave the way for elections within a year and seeks to end the divide between Gaza and the West Bank.
Representatives of 13 factions, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party and its rival Hamas, as well as independent political figures, inked the deal following talks with Egyptian officials.
"All the Palestinian factions signed the document at a meeting with Egyptian intelligence officials," Bilal Qassem, politburo member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Agence France Presse.
He said all factions were given the opportunity to discuss the document and air any reservations.
"We signed the deal despite several reservations. But we insisted on working for the higher national interest," said Walid al-Awad, a politburo member of the leftist Palestine People's Party.
"We have discussed all the reservations. Everyone has agreed to take these points into consideration," he told Egyptian state television without elaborating.
"Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank will be celebrating this agreement... We must now work to implement what was agreed in the deal," he said.
The deal, which was announced last week, comes after 18 months of fruitless talks and envisages the formation of an interim government of independents that will pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections within a year.
Maher al-Taher, a politburo member of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told AFP that Egyptian officials had "promised to take into consideration all reservations expressed during the signing."
Israel had heavily criticized the agreement, refusing to deal with any government that includes Hamas, which it and the United States blacklist as a terrorist organization.
But Palestinian officials said the new government's role will be to manage affairs in the Palestinian territories, while the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), of which Hamas is not a member, will remain in charge of peace talks with Israel.
"The government's role is limited to administrative affairs dealing with the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," Fatah delegation chief Azzam al-Ahmad told reporters in Cairo on Monday.
"But all political matters including negotiating the peace process will remain the responsibility of the PLO," he said.
Tuesday's signing will be followed by an official ceremony on Wednesday in Cairo, which will be attended by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi, Muwafi and Arab League chief Amr Moussa.
After the ceremony, work will immediately begin on the formation of the new government, Ahmad said.
Among the first tasks to be tackled is the establishment of a higher security council tasked with examining ways to integrate Hamas and Fatah's rival security forces and create a "professional" security service.
The accord also calls for the creation of an electoral tribunal and for the release of a number of prisoners held by the rival movements in jails in the West Bank and Gaza.
Fatah and Hamas have been bitterly divided since June 2007 when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, routing Fatah loyalists in bloody confrontations that effectively split the Palestinian territories in two.
The reconciliation deal marks a diplomatic coup for Egypt's new government, 11 weeks after president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular revolt.
Cairo had tried for more than a year to mediate between Fatah and Hamas but its efforts fell flat.
Senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar told the Egyptian independent daily al-Masry al-Youm that the Mubarak regime had "put pressure on Hamas to make concessions."
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