GAZA CITY — The Hamas premier of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, praised steps towards reconciliation taken by the Islamist group and its former rival Fateh, which were angrily denounced in Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas chief Khaled Mishaal took steps in Cairo on Thursday towards reforming the Fateh-dominated Palestine Liberation Organisation, such that Hamas could join.
"We want to pursue positive dialogue with Fateh from this point", Haniyeh told journalists.
"Practical measures must however be taken, like the liberation of political prisoners from Hamas detained by Fateh," he said, adding that Fateh must also stop its repeated questioning of Hamas supporters during investigations.
The reconciliation moves drew an angry response from Israel, with one minister saying Israel must now annex more territory to ensure the safety of its citizens in case "terrorist" Hamas gains influence in the West Bank.
"This alarming rapprochement between Abu Mazen [Abbas] and Hamas is aimed at forming a government that one can only say is aimed at bringing about a genocide," Transport Minister Israel Katz of the right-wing Likud Party said.
"Since the dark days of Nazism, no other movement has set as its aim the killing of Jews", he charged.
Katz said "Israel must impose its sovereignty on all Jewish districts of Judaea and Samaria [the West Bank]," over the prospect of reconciliation between Hamas and Fateh.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev told AFP the unity deal was proof that the Abbas was not interested in peace.
"Hamas is not a political movement that resorts to terrorism but a group whose whole vocation is terrorism," Regev said.
"The closer President Abbas moves to Hamas, the further he moves away from peace."
In Cairo, Fateh, Hamas and the 13 other Palestinian factions agreed on the creation of a panel that would govern elections to the PLO.
With broader membership, the PLO would solidify its place as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, delegates said.
Haniyeh called the creation of the panel "a step in the right direction", but said the Palestinians needed to hold presidential and legislative elections before Hamas could join.
Asked whether joining the PLO would amount to a de facto recognition of Israel, the Hamas leader said:
"We want to join the PLO preserving our own political strategy, while looking for common ground with the other Palestinian factions, so that we can achieve Palestinian national unity."
Mishaal, Hamas' Damascus-based chief, struck an enthusiastic tone in Thursday remarks regarding full unity with the PLO, calling his talks with Abbas a "new departure" for reconciliation.
While Haniyeh did not distance himself from Mishaal's comments, cracks have emerged lately between the Damascus and Gaza branches of Hamas regarding future strategy.
Last month, Mishaal voiced support for "popular peaceful resistance", which presumes that Hamas would ultimately renounce armed struggle against Israel.
He also said he was open to the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including the West Bank and the Gaza strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Such a strategy in effect calls for a Palestinian state next to, and not in place of, Israel, and would be a departure from the position held by Hamas since its founding 24 years ago.