Hamas ends ban on West Bank newspaper

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Gaza's Hamas rulers on Wednesday permitted a veteran West Bank newspaper to be distributed in the coastal territory for the first time in six years, taking a new step toward implementing a reconciliation deal with the rival West Bank government.

The return of the independent Al-Quds daily generated excitement in Gaza City, and all 1,500 copies that were delivered Wednesday quickly sold out.

"Al-Quds is back!" shouted Nabil Baker, a 42-year-old newspaper vendor, as he drove his bike through the streets, selling copies.

While devoted readers have followed Al-Quds online, he said there was something different about reading and touching the hard copy. "The readers like Al-Quds more than any other paper. They are yearning to read it again," he said.

The Palestinian split goes back to 2007 when the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control of Gaza after routing the rival forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas' Palestinian Authority, dominated by his Fatah movement, now governs parts of the West Bank.

After repeated attempts at reconciliation, the rival governments signed a unity pact last month calling for the two sides to form a unity government in June, and then hold new elections around year's end.

Although the split weakened Abbas' position in peace talks, Israel has also objected at his recent attempts to reconcile. Israel considers Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis over the past two decades, a terrorist group and says it will not negotiate with any Palestinian government that includes the Islamic group. The latest round of U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed last month.

On Monday, Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal held a rare meeting in the Gulf nation of Qatar where they agreed to move forward with the reconciliation deal.

Hamas' agreed to permit the distribution of Al-Quds was the latest in a series of small gestures by the sides toward implementing their deal.

Hamas banned Al-Quds, which is published in Jerusalem but is the West Bank's most widely circulated newspaper, in 2008 after it printed a claim that Hamas was behind a deadly Gaza explosion. Other West Bank newspapers are also banned.

The Fatah-dominated West Bank government has banned Gaza newspapers since Hamas wrested control of Gaza in 2007.

Ihab Ghussein, the Hamas government spokesman, called Wednesday's gesture a "new initiative in support of Palestinian reconciliation." He said Hamas hoped to see similar moves by the West Bank government.

Moustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian official in the West Bank, said the newspaper bans in both Palestinian territories would be lifted soon.

Rafeq Abdel Fatah, a 64-year-old tailor, said it was like a dream to see copies of Al-Quds. "You know the feeling you have when you are familiar with something for 30 years and forced to stop doing it every morning?" he asked. "This is the case with my newspaper."

"I hope all good things come back again, not only the newspaper but everything we missed during the past seven years of division," he said.

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