Palestinian factions call for elections by the end of 2018

Fatah's Azam al-Ahmad (right) and Saleh al-Aruri (left) of Hamas shake hands after signing a reconciliation deal in Cairo on Oct 12, 2017, as the two rival Palestinian movements ended their decade-long split following negotiations overseen by Egypt. PHOTO: AFP

CAIRO (BLOOMBERG) - Palestinian factions meeting in Cairo called on President Mahmoud Abbas to hold legislative and presidential elections by the end of 2018 to cement a recent agreement to end a decade of splits that have hampered the bid for statehood.

Representatives of 13 groups met over two days this week and endorsed an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation accord announced on Oct 12. Under that deal, the Palestinian Authority, led by West Bank-based Abbas of Fatah, has taken over most government functions in the Gaza Strip, as well as its border crossings, from Hamas Islamists. A unity government is due to take full administrative control of Gaza by Dec 1.

Elections are a thorny issue for the Palestinians. The last legislative polls were held in 2006 and resulted in a surprise victory for Hamas, leading to divisions that culminated in the expulsion of Fatah from Gaza a year later after a brief war with Hamas. Egypt and Israel, which lists Hamas as a terrorist organisation, responded by imposing a blockade on the coastal enclave.

Fatah and Hamas are due to meet again in Cairo in early December in a bid to reach a timetable to implement the next steps in the deal. Another meeting involving all the factions will take place in February to seal broad political backing for the moves.

Despite the reconciliation accord and regular talks, Fatah has yet to lift punitive measures against Gaza that have squeezed finances and caused power cuts.

And while the Palestinian Authority now controls the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings with Israel and the Rafah transit point with Egypt, the borders remain tightly restricted.

Egypt postponed plans to open the Rafah crossing with northern Sinai earlier this month, citing security reasons.

Hamas negotiator Khalil al-Hayyah told reporters the unity government was now responsible for creating conditions that would allow the border to open. Palestinian officials said an Egyptian delegation was due to go to Gaza to assist in boosting border security.

Mr Hayyah also called on Mr Abbas to "choose and set dates for elections".

Officials from various factions acknowledged elections may not be held next year amid slow progress in the talks, but said they remain committed to dialogue.

"We hope that this will happen before the end of next year and have authorised the president to set the date," Mr Azzam Al-Ahmad, a senior Fatah official, said.

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