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Palestinian factions to delay Gaza handover

Fatah and Hamas had traded accusations about lack of commitment to the Palestinian reconciliation agreement
Yahya Sinwar, pictured in February, summoned Palestinian officials to a meeting on Wednesday (AFP)

Rival Palestinian factions agreed on Wednesday to postpone the handover of control over the Gaza Strip from Hamas to Fatah, less than 48 hours before a deadline as part of an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal.

The announcement came at the last minute as the landmark Palestinian unity deal faltered dangerously, with Fatah and Hamas accusing each other of not respecting the accord.

"Hamas and Fatah are asking Egypt to postpone the transfer of the government roles from December 1 to December 10 in order to finalise arrangements to ensure the completion of national reconciliation steps," said a statement from Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

Fayez Abu Eita, a spokesman for Fatah in Gaza, said the same in remarks after the factions met in Gaza City, noting it was in the interest of "achieving the goals of our people, achieving reconciliation and ending the division".

In previous days the two sides had traded accusations of failing to respect the 12 October agreement which was supposed to see Hamas hand over all governing duties in the enclave to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority by 1 December.

Sharp disagreements remained between Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah, based in the occupied West Bank, and Hamas, particularly over the fate of public employees in Gaza and security control of the enclave.

Earlier on Wednesday, Fatah's top negotiator, Azzam al-Ahmad, told AFP that Hamas was "not committed to the agreement it signed in Cairo".

"Until this moment, the problems and obstacles from Hamas are still there and are increasing."

In response, senior Hamas official Bassem Naim accused Fatah of "manoeuvres" to avoid going through with the deal.

Multiple previous reconciliation attempts have failed since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.

Also Wednesday, in another sign of tension ahead of the deadline, PA employees were prevented by union delegates close to Hamas from returning to work at a number of ministries in the Gaza Strip.

Fatah and Hamas traded accusations over the incident.

As tensions built, Abbas ordered an immediate stop to public statements on reconciliation "for the sake of the Palestinian national interest and our relationship with our Egyptian brothers", official news agency WAFA said.

The Cairo deal signed last month is aimed at ending the decade-long feud between Fatah and Hamas.

Nickolay Mladenov, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, encouraged the factions to press ahead on Wednesday after meetings with Egyptian officials in Gaza overseeing the reconciliation process.

"The agreement that was reached in Cairo is a very important agreement," he told journalists.

"It provides a good framework through which to bring the West Bank and Gaza back under a single legitimate Palestinian Authority."

Mladenov also expressed hope that the agreement would lead to an easing of humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip, which suffers from a lack of basic services such as electricity and clean water.

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