Why are Fatah and Hamas suddenly uniting?
Briefing: The rival Palestinian parties have surprised observers by striking a unity deal
Rival Palestinian political parties Fatah and Hamas have struck a unity deal which will see Palestinians in the parties' respective domains, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, hold their first joint election in five years.
The news has received mixed reactions, largely due to the involvement of Hamas, which many countries consider to be a terrorist organisation.
Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow for the Middle East programme at Chatham House, told The First Post: "The question is not whether Hamas will be involved, but how it will operate in its involvement, and whether they are willing to change."
But what are Fatah and Hamas, and will this deal actually change anything in the Middle East?
WHAT IS HAMAS?A militant Islamic political party founded in 1987, originally as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas is led by Khaled Mashal and Ismail Haniyah.
Hamas demands a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territories occupied during the 1967 war, and full recognition of the rights of the refugees expelled from Israel since 1948. Its founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel, which it has always refused to recognise.
Consistently excluded from mainstream political activity in Palestine by rival party Fatah, Hamas managed to win the majority of the seats in the 2006 election. Civil war ensued, and in May 2007, it used force to seize power in the Gaza Strip, which it has ruled with an iron fist ever since.
WHAT IS FATAH?A secularist political party formed in exile under Yasser Arafat in the 1950s, Fatah was founded as a resistance group against Israel and was behind thousands of violent attacks on settlers, soldiers and Israeli citizens in the 1960s and 70s. It is the current ruling party in the West Bank.
In 2003, at the height of the second intifada, Fatah agreed to commit to peace. Since then it has actively worked with Israel and the US to ensure Israel's security, to the chagrin of many Palestinians.
The current leaders, Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, are widely held to be the most moderate Palestinians have ever had. As a result, Fatah is the recipient of huge sums of aid from the US, and is seen by most Palestinians as corrupt and ineffectual.
WHAT DOES THE DEAL MEAN?Most of the details remain unknown, but it is clear elections will be held in December. In the meantime, a caretaker government with members chosen by both parties will be formed. A board of 12 impartial technocrats will be assembled to oversee the elections.
There were also hints of a prisoner release deal, a combined security force organised by a joint Hamas-Fatah defence committee, and the re-activation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to include Hamas for the first time.
Worryingly, Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas foreign minister, has said the deal "does not include negotiations with Israel or recognizing it", suggesting a huge divide remains between the parties over how to deal with Israel.
WHY ARE FATAH AND HAMAS DOING THIS?Despite its designation as a terrorist organisation, Hamas was democratically elected to power in 2006, so their participation in the peace process has long been seen as necessary. With a UN vote on independently recognising Palestinian statehood due in September, such a deal is an important step towards making their plea more credible.
Palestinians have always called for unity among their political parties, division between whom is pointless while the state struggles for independence. There were a number of protests demanding this in the West Bank in March and more were planned for May.
Regional changes also seem to have played a part. Unrest in Syria has left Hamas unsure of continuing support from Bashar al-Assad's government, while the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt has provided further space for negotiations.
WHAT DOES ISRAEL THINK? Prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu said: "The Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. There is no possibility for peace with both."
He emphasised that Hamas explicitly aspires to destroy the state of Israel, and said that, "the idea of reconciliation with Hamas demonstrates the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and makes one wonder whether Hamas will seize control of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] the way it seized control of the Gaza Strip."
Concerns have already been raised about the ability to share intelligence on terrorists with a defence committee that includes Hamas. Israel has spent a lot of time working with the PA to safeguard its security, and this will be a huge blow to them.
Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman voiced concern at the prisoner release element, "which would flood the West Bank with armed terrorists and the IDF must prepare accordingly".
On the other hand, this could signify that Hamas is ready to move to a more mainstream, moderate position, a blessing at a time when rocket attacks from Gaza have seen a sharp increase.
WHAT DOES EVERYONE ELSE THINK?The US came out loud and clear: "The United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace. Hamas, however, is a terrorist organisation which targets civilians.
"To play a constructive role in achieving peace, any Palestinian government must accept the Quartet principles and renounce violence, abide by past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist."
The British Foreign Office remained more reserved, saying only that, "We are examining the detail of the agreement. Intra-Palestinian reconciliation remains a critical component of the peace process."
Mostly, however, the deal has been greeted with scepticism. The promise of elections means nothing if the legitimate result is again not recognised due to Hamas participation. Similarly, it is hard to see how a unity government can exist between two physically separate territories between which travel is heavily restricted.
Writing on Electronic Intifada, Ali Abuminah asked: "Can such opposing forces really be combined without the Abbas side either renouncing its close ties to the Israeli military, or the Hamas side abandoning any commitment to resistance?" ·