Despite preoccupation with its internal affairs following the Egyptian revolution that toppled long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is reasserting its central role in Palestinian reconciliation efforts.
The interim Egyptian leadership has been meeting with Palestinian leaders representing the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas and other major factions.
Egyptian Ambassador to the PA Ahmed Othman this week dismissed reports that Egypt was too busy putting its house to get involved in the daunting task of restoring Palestinian national unity. "Egypt has been speaking to all Palestinian factions and intends to redouble its efforts to convince these factions to put an end to the division once and for all," he said.
Othman added that the outcome of Egyptian efforts ultimately rested on the will of Palestinians to end existing rifts and restore national unity. "What we really need is concerted efforts to achieve the desired outcome," he said.
According to sources in the Gaza Strip, preparations are underway for a visit to Cairo by Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas- run government in Gaza. Sources pointed out that the issue was not if but when the visit will take place.
"The taboos that prevented such a visit by Haniyeh to Cairo in Mubarak's time no longer exist. Cairo doesn't object to the visit as a matter of principle, as was the case when Mubarak was in power. Mubarak feared strong Israeli reactions and didn't want to upset the Americans. But now, the new leadership in Cairo doesn't give a damn about what Israel and its allies think about how Egypt relates to Hamas," said Ahmed Youssef, a former political advisor to Haniyeh.
In addition to the main subject, Palestinian reconciliation, Egyptian officials would likely discuss security cooperation with Hamas, the fight against terror and border control. Haniyeh is planning to raise a host of other issues with his Egyptian interlocutors, including fuel and electricity imports from Egypt as well as facilitating travel movement through the Rafah Crossing.
"Haniyeh would like to extricate his people from the cruel grip of Israel. As you know Israel has been holding Gaza's 1.6 million people hostage to its whims and cruelty," said a spokesman of the Islamist government in Gaza.
It is widely believed that Egypt is now more receptive to grievances raised by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which stem mainly from the four-year blockade on the coastal enclave following the ousting of PA forces by Hamas in 2007.
All efforts aimed at bridging differences between Hamas and Fatah have failed due to a host of factors, including mutual mistrust, foreign intervention and political and ideological differences. Both groups have also sought to suppress followers and supporters of the other group in their respective areas of control.
Israel and the United States have repeatedly warned the Ramallah-based PA regime against making any serious rapprochement with Hamas, saying that such reconciliation would have negative consequences. The PA receives hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States per year, without which the Ramallah regime won't be able to pay salaries to tens of thousands of civil servants and other employees, especially members of the PA security agencies.
Financial aid to the PA requires approval by the US Congress, which is subject to strong influence by the US Jewish lobby. Nonetheless, revolutions in the Arab world, especially in Egypt, seem to have reshaped the overall political atmosphere in the region, including in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip.
Observers in the occupied Palestinian territories argue that both Hamas and Fatah can no longer relate to each other using the old modes of thinking and that they will have to take into account what Palestinian intellectual Ahmed Sameh Al-Khalidi called the "zeitgeist" or new spirit in the Arab world, or else stand to lose.
The PA has been saying it will formally ask for United Nations recognition for a Palestinian state on territories occupied by Israel in 1967, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Hence, the PA leadership believes that speedy reconciliation with Hamas would significantly enhance its position vis-a-vis the international community and Israel.
Apart from Egyptian efforts, civic groups in occupied Palestine have been making strenuous efforts to get Hamas and Fatah to reconcile. One of the public figures who have been actively involved in these efforts is Palestinian businessman Munib Masri. He said during a public meeting in Ramallah last week that a reconciliation conference would take place this summer in order to put an end to the rift between Fatah and Hamas once and for all.
Dozens of intellectuals, civic leaders, and political activists, including independent figures, attended the Ramallah meeting. Masri said national reconciliation was imperative because it was "the mother of all Palestinian priorities without which nothing will work".
According to a document being circulated and endorsed by civic leaders, public figures and intellectuals working on national reconciliation, the contemplated conference, in which all Palestinian factions would take part, would take place in the "house of the Arabs" -- a reference to Cairo.
"The conference will be subject to an agreed-upon short-time ceiling; it will start from the point at which previous dialogues left off, and it will focus on outstanding contentious issues and will take into consideration the revolutionary changes in the Arab world and their ramifications and repercussions on the Palestinian situation."
The document stresses the need to form a government of national unity on the basis of a broad political programme enjoying the backing of the Palestinian people. It also calls for the reactivation and full functioning of the Palestinian Legislative Council until the organisation of new legislative and presidential elections as well as elections for the Palestinian National Council.