The Hamas factor and Francis’ visit to the Holy Land

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The meeting had already been included in the official schedule for the Pope’s trip to the Holy Land: at 10 am on Sunday 25 May--after President Abu Mazen’s courtesy visit--Pope Francis will meet and address Palestinian leaders in Bethlehem. But since yesterday, a new question has arisen in relation to this meeting: which Palestinian government will Bergoglio find before him when he visits? And, above all, will representatives of militant Islamic movement Hamas also be present at the meeting?

The question was triggered by an event in Gaza yesterday which marked an official turning point for Palestine: Palestinian factions announced a new agreement to form a national unity government which should lead to new elections in Palestine. This is not the first time an announcement of this kind has been made. A whole series of agreements have been reached by Fatah and Hamas in the past but these have not been acted upon. This time, however, things are a little different: a national consensus government must be formed in five weeks time according to the agreement signed yesterday. Which is precisely when the Pope is due to visit Bethlehem and when the global spotlight will be on the Holy Land. It is hard to believe this is a mere coincidence.

The pact which Fatah and Hamas signed yesterday is Abu Mazen’s political response to the standstill in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process which had lasted weeks. With this pact, the two sides genuinely seem to want to put an official end to this standstill. 29 April marks the end of the nine-month period which the US Secretary of State John Kerry allocated for the drafting of a peace plan agreed on by both sides. Today, not only is there no trace of said plan, but negotiations seem about to break down. The firm statement issued yesterday evening by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was no coincidence: "This evening, as talks are still ongoing about extending the negotiations, Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas} has chosen Hamas and not peace,” he wrote. The accusation was returned to sender by the Palestinian President who sees national unity is a condition for peace. It is worth adding, however, that in recent days, Fatah – Abu Mazen’s party – has stated on a number of occasions that talks with Israel cannot resume without “clear guidelines”.

The Holy See has been following these developments with great concern. Only last Sunday,-- in his Easter Urbi et Orbi message Pope Francis addressed a special prayer to the Risen Jesus, asking Him “to sustain the hopes raised by the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”

On Easter Sunday, the heads of Christian Churches in Jerusalem urged both sides not to let this historic opportunity for peace slip away. The negotiation process seems to have reached a very delicate point, just as the Pope visits Jerusalem. There is a very real risk that the official speeches prepared for this visit will spark a new diplomatic battle between Israelis and Palestinians.

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Giorgio Bernardelli--