By ALBERT AJI
The Associated Press
DAMASCUS, Syria -- A senior Hamas official said that a deal on forming a Palestinian national unity government was near, adding that an agreement on a new prime minister has been reached.
"There is some progress on this issue and in the next days, God willing, the remaining outstanding issues will be resolved," Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy leader of Hamas' political bureau in Syria, said in a telephone interview late Friday.
He spoke following talks in Damascus with Farouk Kaddoumi, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization's political wing.
Abu Marzouk said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas officials have agreed on a candidate for the Palestinian prime minister, but declined to disclose the candidate's name, saying: "It will be disclosed at the suitable time."
Abbas said Saturday from the West Bank that he hoped to form a coalition government with the Islamic Hamas party by the end of the month.
"I tell my people that we have achieved great progress on the way to forming a national unity government that can end the siege and open the horizons for political solutions that will end the occupation forever," Abbas said at a ceremony marking two years since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians converged on Arafat's gravesite in a rally that also appeared aimed at reinvigorating his faltering Fatah Party.
Fatah bused in Palestinians from across the West Bank for the event, dropping many of them in the center of Ramallah -- the Palestinians' de facto capital. Carrying Fatah banners and pictures of Arafat, they marched through the city to the compound that served as the late leader's headquarters.
Top Palestinian officials laid wreaths at the glass shrine atop Arafat's grave inside the compound and read verses from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, while crowds filled the nearby courtyard. A massive picture of Arafat stood nearby.
Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian students in the West Bank and Gaza Strip returned to school Saturday after a two-month teachers strike.
Clamoring into school buildings that stood empty during the strike, small children and teenagers greeted their classmates with excitement.
Some 40,000 teachers launched the strike at the start of the school year in September, protesting the Hamas-led government's failure to pay their salaries since it came to power in March. International sanctions have made it largely impossible for the Hamas government to pay its 165,000 civil servants, causing widespread hardship in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Hamas-run Education Ministry vowed earlier in the week to begin paying teachers, and scraped together enough cash to pay them a partial salary.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Friday he would be willing to sacrifice his job if the international community would lift economic sanctions that have crippled his Hamas-led government.
His statement was the latest indication that the Hamas was nearing a deal to form a national unity government with Abbas' moderate Fatah Party that would be made up of independent experts.
"All the measures undertaken by Hamas aim at breaking the siege on the Palestinian people, otherwise there would be no need for (government) change," Abu Marzouk said.
Kaddoumi, who had held talks in Damascus with Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas' political bureau, said before leaving Damascus late Friday for Iran that talks over the formation of the government have achieved progress.
"But there are still some details that need to be worked out," he told reporters in Damascus.