Egypt to host Palestinian factional talks Wednesday

CAIRO, Feb 21 (Alaa Shahine/Reuters) – Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks between Palestinian groups will take place on Wednesday, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.

Ending divisions between Islamist Hamas and the rival Fateh group of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is seen as key to lifting an Israeli-led blockade of the impoverished Gaza Strip, enforced since Hamas won a parliamentary election in 2006.

The administration of US President Barack Obama and the European Union have offered encouragement to Cairo to try to end the schism, which has helped Israel make the case that the Palestinians are not ready for statehood, diplomats said.

But the Obama administration and the EU have still made clear that Western support was conditional on what, if any, unity agreement emerges from the talks in Cairo.

The reconciliation talks were meant to have begun in Egypt on Sunday, but were postponed last week with Hamas blaming Israel’s refusal to agree to a new Gaza truce after its January offensive in the territory to counter cross-border rocket fire.

Hamas drove Fateh out of Gaza in June 2007 after a power struggle that turned violent, leaving Abbas with a truncated mandate in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Fatah has mounted roundups of West Bank Hamas activists. Hamas wants them released as part of the rapprochement efforts.

"In order for the dialogue to succeed, serious work must be exerted to release all political prisoners from the Palestinian Authority jails in the West Bank," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, who also confirmed the Feb. 25 date for the talks.

A Fatah official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the group could order an amnesty for some Hamas prisoners.

"Under an understanding with Hamas, there will be releases of many Hamas detainees," the Fatah official told Reuters.

Abbas, which dissolved a government alliance with Hamas after its Gaza takeover, has called for a new union — but on condition the Islamists submit to his authority.

Any unity government including Hamas ministers would have to meet three Western conditions to renounce violence, recognize Israel and abide by interim peace accords, U.S. officials said.

A government made up of non-partisan technocrats could have more room to maneuver if it adopted a platform accommodating a two-state solution with Israel, U.S. and EU officials said.

Neither outcome appears to be agreeable to Hamas, whose leaders have said they will not accept a technocratic government, let alone one that embraces the three Western conditions, which they reject.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, discouraged Palestinian reconciliation efforts.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Adam Entous in Jerusalem; Editing by Jon Boyle)