A reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the rival Palestinian parties, has been delayed, following a bitter dispute over the Palestinian decision not to back a UN report on alleged Israeli war crimes.
The deal was to be signed on October 25, clearing the way for Hamas and Fatah to co-operate in rebuilding war-damaged Gaza by preparing for Palestinian elections in the first half of 2010.
Speaking of his disappointment to Al Jazeera on Monday, Mustafa Barghouthi - an independent member of the Palestinian parliament - said he believed Fatah and Hamas had turned a UN war-crimes report into a party-political issue, rather than into an honest attempt to seek justice.
The report, drawn up by a team of experts led by Richard Goldstone, a former South African judge, accuses Israel of using disproportionate force and failing to protect civilians during its bombardment of Gaza at the end of 2008.
Palestinian party politics
Barghouthi said: "What is most unfortunate is that the Goldstone report should have been a unifying issue for all Palestinians ... to hold Israel accountable for its war crimes.
"What we see is that both Fatah and Hamas are making this into a party-political issue. This should stop."
The two sides have been divided since Hamas, which commanded a majority in parliament, seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.
Following the takeover, there have been rival Palestinian governments in Gaza and the West Bank.
With mediation from Egypt, the parties have been trying to broker a deal to reconcile and establish a power-sharing agreement.
But Hamas said on its website on Sunday that it was postponing the agreement because of a much-criticised decision by the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by President Mahmoud Abbas, to delay action on the Goldstone report.
'Crime and scandal'
Seven Palestinian groups joined Hamas leaders based in Damascus, Syria, on Sunday in issuing a statement of support for the postponement of the reconciliation deal.
They called Abbas's decision to freeze action on the UN report a "crime and scandal".
The groups emphasised the importance of reconciliation, but said Abbas's actions should not go unpunished.
In a televised speech from the conference in Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader, spelled out his party's position.
"When Goldstone investigated the criminal aggression by Israel against Gaza, this was an opportunity to indict Israel," he said.
"But this group of Palestinian leaders [Fatah leadership] withdrew the report. This is the Goldstone scandal. A courageous leadership is a leadership that is frank with its people.
"Those who are accumulating political mistakes are today continuing their lies. This is not a leadership that deserves to be entrusted with the leadership of the Palestinians.
The Goldstone report recommended that the UN Security Council require both sides to carry out credible investigations into alleged abuses during the conflict - in which 13 Israelis and almost 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilian women and children, were killed.
Israel has rejected the report's allegations while the US has called it deeply flawed.
But many Palestinians, and not just Hamas members, were outraged after Abbas withdrew Palestinian support for having the UN Human Rights Council forward the report to the 192-nation General Assembly for possible action.
In reaction, Abbas gave his own speech on Sunday in Ramallah - saying Hamas had its own reasons for not wanting to sign a reconciliation agreement.
"This campaign by Hamas is aimed at serving their interests, which is to postpone the signing of the reconciliation agreement," he said.
"They want to concentrate their rule and their regime in Gaza. They want to ensure the continuity of division in Gaza, that aims at weakening the Palestinian Authority."
Unity 'efforts continuing'
Some Palestinian parliamentarians are still hopeful that a reconciliation agreement might be reached by October 25.
Barghouthi, the Palestinian politician, said despite the public media attacks, unity efforts are continuing.
"The Egyptians have provided a final copy of the agreement for reconciliation. And hopefully, by the 20th of this month, all parties will sign this agreement in preparation for a ceremony that would declare unity," he told Al Jazeera.
|Abbas's decision not to back the Gaza report at the UNHRC was deeply unpopular [AFP]
"Delaying the Goldstone report vote would never have happened if we had had a united Palestinian leadership.
"Given that Israel has arrested large numbers of parliamentary members, the parliament is paralysed and unable to function - so this agreement needs to happen."
But other Palestinians say the chances of national unity are slim.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Monday, Azzam Tamimi, author of Hamas: Unwritten Chapters, said saving the reconciliation process while Abbas remains president is almost impossible.
"The overwhelming opinion in the Palestinian street now is that Abbas is a complete traitor. There is no coming back from that," he said.
"And what makes this worse is the reality that, despite much hope for change with a new US government under President Barack Obama, it seems clear now that it was American pressure that forced Abbas not to back the UN war report."
Tamimi said Washington's policy towards the whole Palestine issue "has not changed, despite a new set of faces in the White House".