Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah prepared for the historic signing of a truce deal Wednesday despite Israel's fervent objections. President Mahmoud Abbas said at the official ceremony that Palestinians had "turned forever the black page of division. Hamas is part of the Palestinian people."
"Israel must choose between settlements and peace," Abbas added. Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashaal said, "We want an independent Palestinian state with sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza." With the signing of the agreement, he added, "Hamas's only conflict is with Israel."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently visiting London, said in response: "What happened today in Cairo is a tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism."
Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh, who did not attend the signing ceremony, congratulated Abbas, Mashaal and Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shallah on signing the reconciliation pact.
Meanwhile Yisrael Beiteinu announced it would demand the government cut all ties with the new Palestinian unity government. "You cannot expect the State of Israel to transfer money to Hamas and in effect fund operations against its own citizens," a statement from the party says.
"Those who declare bin Laden a freedom fighter and a holy Muslim, as Haniyeh has done, and those who do not allow the Red Cross access to kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, cannot be partners for negotiations, neither directly nor indirectly."
A draft of the deal was signed Tuesday in Cairo. Wednesday's ceremony was delayed nearly two hours, apparently due to a last-minute argument over Hamas and Fatah leaders' seating arrangements. Sources say Abbas refused to allow Mashaal to sit next to him on stage.
Also participating in the ceremony were Israeli Arab MKs Ahmed Tibi, Mohammed Barakeh, Wasil Taha, and Taleb El-Sana.
MK El-Sana said at the ceremony, "We are happy to be a part of this event. It is a historic day for the Palestinian people and leadership, and a historic day for peace-lovers. This agreement is an important step on the path to ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state."
El-Sana added, "The truce is an internal Palestinian issue that will promote peace and even help promote the release of Gilad Shalit. The Netanyahu government must understand that everything has changed. This government is living in the past and missing out on this historic change."
MK Barakeh said he realizes the Arab MKs' participation in the ceremony will spark outrage among Israel's rightists, but that they feel it is their duty.
"The Israeli government fears this agreement because it was enjoying the division between Gaza and the (Palestinian) territories. But a truce should not be feared. The Israeli government should welcome the change and learn to live with the people beside it," he said.
Tibi: Typical Israeli hypocrisy, vanity
MK Tibi said he was "proud to be here at the signing of a truce agreement whose target is to put an end to a dark chapter in Palestinian national history".
"Israel aggrandizes the value of unity, but when it comes to the Palestinians they jump as if snake-bitten. This is a mixture of typical Israeli hypocrisy and vanity," he said. "Palestinian unity will bring on the end of the occupation and the founding of a Palestinian state, with or without Israel."
However the MKs diverged from Hamas's condemnation of the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. "I believe this statement was unfortunate," Barakeh said. "Palestinian issues should not be mixed up with the crimes bin Laden committed."
Balad Party Chairman MK Wasil Taha also said he was happy to participate in the event. "The truce being signed now is the answer to anyone plotting against the Palestinian people and unity is the basis for the continuing struggle to establish a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," he said.
Taha also expressed hope that the truce would help the Palestinians' relations with Egypt, "which changed its political views after the revolution and began to base itself on freedom of speech, democracy, respect, and justice – not only on a local but also on an international scale."
King Abdullah II of Jordan welcomed the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. A palace statement said the king welcomes the reconciliation agreement, which should put an end to division and unite the Palestinian people,
"Jordan will support the Palestinians politically and economically until an independent state is established on Palestinian land."
Palestinians celebrate unity
Hundreds of Palestinians gathered in main squares in the West Bank and Gaza on Wednesday to celebrate the reconciliation deal.
The Square of the Unknown Soldier in Gaza was a scene of particular elation. Fireworks and Fatah and Hamas flags were all part of the festivities. The crowds chanted slogans such as "Hamas and Fatah – one and the same" and "The people want to see the deal implemented."
"This day will be recorded in Palestinine's glorious history," Fadua, a student from Gaza said.
Reuters, Attila Somfalvi and Hassan Shaalan contributed to this report
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