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Rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas said yesterday they had agreed on “mechanisms” for forthcoming elections and to respect their outcome, after years of bitter divisions.

In a joint statement on the second day of talks between Palestinian factions in Cairo, they said they had agreed a timeline for the polls and “committed to respecting and accepting their results”.

The deal provides for an “electoral court” with exclusive jurisdiction over the electoral process and any cases arising from the polls, the first in 15 years.

The parliamentary and presidential polls are set for May 22 and July 31, respectively.

The Islamist movement Hamas, blacklisted as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States, won an unexpected landslide at the last elections in 2006, a victory not recognised by president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah.

That led to bloody clashes the following year and a split in Palestinian governance.

Fatah has since run the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Hamas has held power in the Gaza Strip since 2007, the year Israel imposed a devastating blockade on the coastal enclave.

The Palestinian Legislative Council has not met since. Numerous attempts at reconciliation have failed to close the rift.

Hamas has links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was in power in Egypt until its 2013 ouster by the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Hopes for diplomacy under Biden

The Palestinian schism has seen as a major obstacle to a peace agreement between Israel and a future Palestinian state combining the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In their statement, the factions said polling “must take place in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, without exception” and committed to allowing “public liberties and… an atmosphere of political freedom” as well as equal access to official media for all electoral lists.

The deal also includes commitments to immediately release all prisoners detained “on factional grounds or in relation to freedom of opinion”, the statement says.

The elections come in a year when veteran Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a hardliner on the Palestinian issue, also faces new elections, months after the White House departure of his close US ally Donald Trump.

While Palestinians cut ties with Trump’s administration, accusing it of egregious pro-Israel bias, they hope for renewed diplomacy under Joe Biden, who supports a two-state solution and has vowed to restore aid to them.

The elections will also take place in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 160,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, with over 1,800 deaths.

The Palestinian Authority last week received 10,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine in the West Bank, while Hamas relaxed restrictions aimed at stemming infections.

Some 2.8 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, while the densely populated, impoverished Gaza Strip is home to two million.

Egypt, which is hosting the talks between 14 Palestinian factions, on Tuesday opened its border crossing with the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip to “indefinitely” allow the coastal strip’s people passage to the outside world, a security source said.