|Although inter-faction fighting has ebbed, political reconciliation remains elusive [GALLO/GETTY]
The emnity between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah seems yet further entrenched, after Cairo-brokered reconciliation talks between the two groups broke down before they had even officially begun.
The Palestinian national dialogue, due to be held on Monday in the Egyptian capital, was to have been attended by all the major Palestinian political factions.
The main aim was to find some way of bridging the acrimonious divide between Hamas and Fatah following the bloody infighting that lead to Hamas seizing control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 - pushing out security forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and the head of Fatah.
Tellingly, when the news first broke on Saturday that the talks were off, there was confusion about why they had collapsed and who was responsible.
News agencies reported that Hamas was boycotting the event.
Not long after, Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official denied they had withdrawn from the talks, saying the Egyptian authorities had postponed the conference because "there was a bad atmosphere between the two sides that would have most likely led to the failure of the talks".
Fatah blamed Hamas for the talks falling through, with Nabil Abu Rudeina, a spokesman for Abbas, saying they had also lost "the opportunity to regain Palestinian unity".
Dr Mustafa Barghouthi, a human rights activist and Palestinian parliamentarian, says the talks were always doomed. He believes that elections are the only way forwards for the region.
"I don't think it is possible to achieve an agreement between Fatah and Hamas. I think talks should be about one issue - how to have new elections, with sufficient observers to ensure that those elections would be fair. The only way out of this crisis is to allow people to decide freely," he says.
|Israel has the option to end talks with the Palestinian president [EPA]
Barghouthi is convinced all factions would accept elections, but underlines "it is not only in the hands of the Palestinians, they cannot conduct elections without Israeli approval".
Hamas had repeatedly warned it would not attend the conference in Cairo unless Fatah met a number of conditions - most notably the release of Hamas prisoners held in Ramallah in the West Bank.
The movement also called for Fatah to allow Hamas delegates from the West Bank to participate in the talks, for Abbas to enter into the negotiations in person - rather than fulfil a ceremonial role - and for the right to table amendments to the Egyptian-drafted reconciliation plan.
The proposals, if implemented, pave the way for a politically independent government to be appointed until elections for both the president and the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) can take place. Hamas has serious reservations about the plan, believing it gives Abbas an automatic extension to his term in office. He is due to step down in early January.
In addition, Hamas had been expecting its members to be released from West Bank prisons in a reciprocal goodwill gesture for its recent release of Fatah members detained in Gazan jails.
This is yet to happen, with Fatah denying it is responsible for detentions, as well as asserting that any prisoners would be criminals rather than political activists.
Hassan Essa, an Egyptian political analyst, academic and former director of the Israeli department within the ministry of foreign affairs, says the chances of ever brokering a settlement between the two sides are slim.
"The amount of mistrust between Hamas and Fatah is enormous. Hamas has ties with Iran, this is no secret, which makes Hamas not free to take the Palestinian decisions - because Iran is playing with the Palestinian cause.
"It is becoming a card that is being played by Iran. Hamas is not free to take a free Palestinian decision - that's why they can't solve the problem and they can't come into an agreement with Fatah.
"On the other hand, Mahmoud Abbas was, and still is, I think, threatened openly by Ehud Olmert [the outgoing Israeli prime minister] that he would cut ties and stop negotiating.
"This also makes Abbas unable to take a free Palestinian decision," Essa says.
Furthermore, Essa points to serious divisions within the two factions themselves that render the chances of a settlement even more remote.
"Inside the Palestinian Authority, inside Fatah, there are differences of opinion between those who urge Fatah to deal with Hamas and those who object to those deals," he says.
"There are also divisions within Hamas. There are factions who believe there is no hope in dealing with Mahmoud Abbas because he is playing into Israeli and American hands.
"There is another faction inside Hamas who believe the separation between Fatah and Hamas, between Gaza and the West Bank, is doing tremendous harm to the Palestinian cause."
"You might claim to have a problem with Hamas - but the national unity government represented 95 per cent of the Palestinian electorate"
Mustafa Barghouthi, Palestinian MP
Despite all this, Essa predicts both sides will eventually be persuaded to take a seat at the negotiating table, even if striking a deal is a long way off.
Motasem Dalloul, a Gaza-based journalist, is not surprised that the talks fell at so early a stage and also underlines the mutual suspicion between the two groups.
He cautions that most Palestinians have lost confidence in Fatah, believing it has, and will continue to, concede key negotiating points such as the right to return and disputed borders.
As ordinary Gazans suffer under the Israeli blockade, imposed after Hamas ejected Fatah from the strip, Barghouthi believes the international community is partially responsible for the current situation because it failed to support the fledgling National Unity government.
The US, EU and Russia all regard Hamas as a "terrorist" organisation and refuse to hold direct talks.
"You might claim to have a problem with Hamas - but the National Unity government represented 95 per cent of the Palestinian electorate," Barghouthi says.
"The outcome of that failure [to support that government] is what you see today. The international community can't speak about democracy [and] then negate democratically-elected results just because they don't like those results."
Kyriacos Triantaphyllides, a Cypriot MEP and head of the European Parliament's delegation to the PLC, has just returned from an inter-parliamentary visit to both Ramallah and Gaza.
He stresses that his group, in line with EU policy, met only elected parliamentarians - regardless of their political allegiance.
He believes that the situation between Fatah and Hamas could deteriorate further given the looming power vacuum in Israel as it prepares for its own elections and the US waits for President-elect Barack Obama to take the helm.
"The European Union as a whole should fill this vacuum as much as possible, if talks produce results in terms of elections, we should encourage and observe to help ensure ... they are carried out in a democratic way.
"However, we [the international community] must not make the same mistake they made in 2006, by not talking to the Hamas majority following the general elections that year."