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Abbas agrees to visit Gaza, talk to Hamas

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Majdi Mohammed/AP

(Read caption) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures at a Fatah central council meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 16. Abbas said Wednesday he will not run for re-election.

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The estranged Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas are talking seriously for the first time in years about a high-level reconciliation meeting that could pave the way for a unified Palestinian approach to peace talks and state-building.

On Wednesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah responded to an invitation the day before from Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah to meet in Gaza. After years of stalemated reconciliation talks involving lower-level officials, Mr. Abbas said that he would be willing to go immediately.

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The overtures are significant because they appear to be a direct response to popular pressure; Tuesday rallies organized via Facebook drew thousands into the streets of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to call for Palestinian reconciliation.

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No date for a summit has been set. But if the trip goes through, it would be Abbas’s first to Gaza since violent clashes forced Fatah to withdraw from the coastal territory in 2007 and froze relations between the two largest Palestinian political parties.

A key point of disagreement between the Western-backed, secular Fatah faction and Islamist Hamas is whether and how to negotiate a peace deal with Israel. A unified front may make for more difficult negotiations with Israel, which considers Hamas a terrorist group, but could also lend any peace agreement more legitimacy in Palestinian eyes.

This week's goodwill gestures have encouraged average Palestinians, who blame both parties for the impasse and have grown skeptical that Hamas and Fatah can resolve their differences.

Israel, which controls access to Gaza, would also have to give its blessing to Abbas’s trip.

And while Israeli officials acknowledge that Palestinian reunification is important for the peace process, they are skeptical about the prospects for a deal. Opinion polls in the West Bank and Gaza suggest the same low expectations exist among the Palestinians about ending their differences.