GAZA Palestinian officials will begin registering voters in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip next month to pave the way for elections aimed at healing a nearly six-year split between Palestinian factions.
Hamas had barred the Palestinian Central Election Commission from Gaza, a territory it seized from the Fatah movement in a brief 2007 civil war, accusing the body of bias in favor of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority which rules the West Bank.
Following Egyptian-brokered talks, the two factions agreed that registering Gaza voters ahead of national parliamentary and presidential polls would be the first step towards forming a national unity government.
"We are confident this process will begin soon and will be accomplished, and through it we would have achieved the first stage in the process of ending division," CEC chairman Hanna Naser told reporters in Gaza on Wednesday.
Registration will begin on February 9, the CEC said, when Palestinian factions are due to meet in Cairo to begin integrating Gaza-based militant parties Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinians' diplomatic body, which is now close to Fatah.
Palestinian law requires elections to be held within three months of voter registration.
The rivals have agreed they will form a unity cabinet of technocrats as an interim measure, but have bickered over the details.
Palestinian President and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas has said ministers must have no affiliation to either party, but Hamas wants to make sure they are not bound to support any initiative Abbas may make toward reviving peace talks with Israel.
"The government in Gaza was determined to facilitate the mission of the CEC and provide them with what they need to carry out their job," said Taher Al-Nono, spokesman of the Hamas government in Gaza.
Egypt had hoped to exploit a partisan thaw following a status upgrade for Palestinians at the United Nations and a truce between Hamas and Israel in the wake of eight days of fighting in November.
But misgivings linger over the conduct of 2006 national elections, in which Hamas won a surprise majority.
Abbas continues to call the takeover of Gaza which followed a "coup". Hamas is resentful that its electoral victory is not recognized, and says continued detention of Hamas officials in the West Bank undermines unity efforts. Fatah also accuses Hamas of making arrests among its Gaza members.
The two parties have yet to reconcile their strategy toward Israel. Fatah renounces violence and favors talks while Hamas has pledged to keep its weapons trained on Israel.
(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Rosalind Russell)