Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah signed a Yemeni-brokered agreement on Sunday to open their first direct talks since the Islamists seized control of the Gaza Strip nine months ago.
Fatah parliamentary leader Azzam al-Ahmed and Hamas number two Mussa Abu Marzuk signed the so-called Sanaa Declaration in the presence of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, an AFP correspondent witnessed.
The initative aims to end the deep chasm between the two factions since Hamas routed forces loyal to the Fatah faction of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Gaza in a week of deadly street battles last June.
The plan, which calls for a return to the political status quo that existed before Hamas's seizure of the impoverished territory -- denounced as a coup by Abbas -- had looked doomed just days ago.
"The two movements Hamas and Fatah have agreed to accept the Yemeni initiative as a framework for dialogue between the two movements and a return of the Palestinian situation to what it was before the events in Gaza," the declaration said.
The text, which was read out to journalists by Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi, said the dialogue also aimed to "reconfirm the unity of the Palestinian homeland in terms of its land, people and the Palestinian Authority."
As well as the restoration of the national unity government which was in power before the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the re-establishment of the Palestinian leadership's authority over the territory, the Yemeni initiative also provides for early elections in the Palestinian territories.
The two factions have been bitterly divided since Hamas gunmen drove Abbas's security forces out of Gaza, effectively cleaving the Palestinian territories into rival camps and several previous attempts to reconcile the two sides have failed.
In Gaza City, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri confirmed the agreement to open talks but stressed that it was only a framework.
"The two movements Hamas and Fatah have agreed to accept the Yemeni initiative as a framework for dialogue between the two movements and a return of the Palestinian situation to what it was before the events in Gaza," he told AFP.
"That means it is a framework for dialogue and not a set of preconditions for implementation. The dialogue will focus on the Palestinian situation, and not only in Gaza."
Abu Marzuk had said last week that Hamas would agree to share control of Gaza -- a tiny overpopulated enclave sandwiched between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea -- if Abbas reappoints Ismail Haniya as prime minister.
After his forces were routed from Gaza, Abbas dismissed Haniya -- a Hamas member -- and suspended talks with the Islamists unless they relinquished control of Gaza.
Israel has been negotiating with the Abbas administration, which is currently limited to the occupied West Bank.
But it refuses to engage in talks with Hamas, which is pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state. Israel has also imposed a crippling embargo on Gaza and last month launched a deadly five-day blitz on the narrow enclave.
Long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have made little progress since they were revived at a US-sponsored conference in November.
The Islamists have also been involved in separate talks with Egypt about establishing a truce with Israel and reopening the Gaza Strip's borders with the outside world.
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been closed almost continuously since the seizure of Gaza by Hamas, which Israel, the United States and European Union consider a terror group.