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Hamas Boycotts Reconciliation Talks With Fatah

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Another group the U.S. won't talk to is Hamas. And ever since this Palestinian faction fought in the streets of Gaza with its rival Fatah last year, those two factions have been bitterly divided. Hamas and Fatah were supposed to meet in Egypt this week in search of a reconciliation agreement. But Hamas boycotted the talks when it was not able to win the release of hundreds of its prisoners held by the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who's also a Fatah leader. The breakdown points to the entrenched divisions between the two groups. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.

PETER KENYON: Even before Hamas leaders announced the boycott of the Cairo talks, Arab commentators were describing the reconciliation project as an impossible mission. While recognizing that unifying the Islamist Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip and the more pragmatic Fatah movement that rules the West Bank is essential to the Mideast peace process, the Palestinian-owned Al-Quds Al-Arabi wrote of a great divide, the absence of trust and disinterest in achieving any progress toward that goal.

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For Egypt, the reconciliation effort represents an opportunity to reclaim center stage as the leader of the so-called Arab moderates after efforts by Saudi Arabia and Yemen failed to yield lasting results. But while Fatah and its Western supporters are pleased to work under Cairo's mediation, Hamas and its backers, Iran and Syria, are skeptical. Analyst Emad Gad at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies says Hamas tried everything it could think of to dilute Egypt's influence, but gradually it's realized that for now it's stuck with Cairo.

Dr. EMAD GAD (Analyst, Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies): They try to depend on the Iranian financial assistance. They try to depend on Syrian assistance. But they failed. After that, Hamas tried to minimize the Egyptian role by going to Saudi Arabia, by going to Yemen. And they failed. Hamas now faces the realities.

KENYON: Gad says after more than a year as a governing party in Gaza, Hamas is showing signs of evolving from its early days as a violent spinoff of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. After decades of sponsoring attacks against both Israeli soldiers and civilians, Hamas is now more or less preserving a cease-fire with Israel, making some efforts to guard the Israeli-Gaza border, and has even made tentative comments about considering international demands on such red-line issues as recognizing Israel and disavowing violence.

But for the Egyptian government, Hamas will always be seen through the prism of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. And Gad says that means Cairo will always have a domestic agenda whenever dealing with Hamas, convincing Egyptians that an Islamist government would be a disaster.

Dr. GAD: It's not easy for the Hamas leaders, it's not easy for the Iranian, it's not easy for the Syrian that Egypt hosts a Palestinian dialogue because Hamas is just a branch of Muslim Brotherhood, the mother movement. Egypt try to give a reason to the Egyptian public opinion that if you want to elect the Muslim Brotherhood, this is the outcome of the Islamist government.

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KENYON: With President Bush's initiative for Mideast peace apparently foundering, Israelis heading to a new round of elections that could bring the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu to power, and a new American president distracted by a global financial crisis, analysts see little hope of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict anytime soon. And even that faint hope will vanish if the Palestinians can't present a united government for their divided territories. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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