With kisses on the cheek in a gleaming hall of Egypt's intelligence services, leaders of rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah reached an agreement for Hamas to hand over control of the Gaza Strip to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.
The deal is just an early step in a longer process that could end a decade-long split that has nearly paralyzed Palestinian political leadership and increased the misery for Gazans in need of jobs and aid.
According to the agreement, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority will resume all governing responsibilities in Gaza no later than Dec. 1.
Attempts at reconciliation in recent years fell apart. If this deal succeeds, the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza will be reunited under one leadership for the first time since the Islamist militant group Hamas wrested control of the territory 10 years ago.
"Our house is one. Our suffering is one. Our fate is one. Our future is one," senior Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri said in televised remarks Thursday after two days of marathon talks mediated by Egypt.
Fatah officials said the two sides agreed that the Palestinian Authority would take over responsibility for Gaza's border crossings no later than Nov. 1 and that full governing responsibilities would be handed over to the Palestinian Authority by the beginning of December.
In 2007, when the two groups could not agree on sharing power, Hamas drove Fatah leaders out of Gaza and wrested control of the seaside territory, leaving Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in control only of parts of the West Bank.
With Hamas in control, conditions in Gaza deteriorated. Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the territory, severely restricting Palestinians from leaving the territory and goods from entering. Hamas and Israel fought three wars over the past decade. Unemployment is high, and electricity and clean water are scarce. Hamas has said it hopes that by giving back power to the Palestinian Authority, life in Gaza can improve.
According to the text of the agreement signed by both parties, Egypt mediated the deal in order to "achieve Palestinian unity in order to ... establish an independent Palestinian state" in Gaza and the Israel-occupied West Bank.
Palestinian media reported that the two sides agreed to form a committee to solve, within four months, one very local problem that has dogged previous attempts at reconciliation: what to do about Hamas bureaucrats who will be out of a job when the Palestinian Authority resumes its rule in Gaza. The reports also said the Palestinian Authority would seek to merge Hamas' police officers in Gaza with the Palestinian security services.
But one central issue has yet to be discussed: the fate of Hamas' militant wing and cache of rockets and weapons. Abbas has said he would not take over Gaza until Hamas gave up its weapons. It is unclear whether that unresolved issue will delay Abbas' government's return to Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Facebook that any reconciliation deal must make Hamas disarm and "end its war to destroy Israel." And he said a reconciliation deal makes peace harder to achieve.
The U.S. says it wants the Palestinian Authority to take control of Gaza again. And the Palestinian Authority is hoping that reconciliation will allow the Palestinian territories to have a unified voice to press Israel for an independent state.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel with a look at a deal that could end a decade of division and political stalemate within the Palestinian leadership. The Islamist militant group Hamas took over the Gaza Strip 10 years ago, but the Palestinian Authority kept control of parts of the West Bank. And that split has contributed to the miserable conditions in Gaza. Today, the two rivals reached a preliminary deal for Hamas to hand Gaza back to the Palestinian Authority.
And NPR's Daniel Estrin has been following this from Jerusalem. Daniel, first, tell us what happened today.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: There were marathon talks for two days in Cairo, and then very early this morning the leaders of the two Palestinian groups signed an agreement. And according to that agreement, the Palestinian Authority will take control of Gaza's border crossings no later than November 1, and it will assume full governing responsibilities in Gaza no later than December 1. And leaders from both sides say this is about Palestinian unity. And here's what Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri said in Arabic.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SALEH AL-AROURI: (Speaking Arabic).
ESTRIN: "Our house is one. Our suffering is one. Our fate is one. Our future is one."
SIEGEL: And what exactly is this agreement supposed to achieve?
ESTRIN: Well, the Palestinian hope is that it will end a decade of misery in Gaza, and that it will open Gaza up to the outside world because when Hamas took over 10 years ago, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza. And very few people can leave Gaza. Unemployment is very high. Hamas fought three wars with Israel. And humanitarian conditions in Gaza have become really dire.
So, you know, because the Palestinian Authority is recognized as a legitimate government by the world, Palestinians hope that if the Palestinian Authority is back in control in Gaza, Egypt would open its border crossing with Gaza and Gaza's isolation would end. But there are still a lot of very key issues that the two sides have not yet agreed on. So today's agreement is just one step in what's going to be a very long process.
SIEGEL: But talk about those major issues that divide Hamas and Fatah.
ESTRIN: Well, one issue is a very local one, and that's jobs. Hamas wants its tens of thousands of bureaucrats that run Gaza and that have run Gaza for 10 years to have a source of income when the Palestinian Authority takes over. So that's been one sticking point that has actually made past attempts at reconciliation fail. A major issue is Hamas' weapons and its rockets. The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, wants Hamas to disarm, and they haven't yet negotiated that point.
SIEGEL: You're in Jerusalem. What's Israel saying about all this?
ESTRIN: Well, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted about this on Facebook. He said, any reconciliation deal must make Hamas disarm and, quote, "end its war to destroy Israel." He said a reconciliation deal makes peace harder to achieve. Now, the U.S. has said it wants the Palestinian Authority to take control of Gaza again. And the Palestinian Authority is hoping that if it unites the Palestinian territories, if it's in control of the West Bank and Gaza, then it will have a unified voice to press Israel for an independent state.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Daniel, thank you.
ESTRIN: Thanks, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.