Fateh rally show of strength in power struggle with Hamas

RAMALLAH (AP) — At a rally meant as a show of strength of his Fateh movement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday called on rival forces to halt their armed clashes and replace bloodshed with respect.

Without mentioning Hamas by name, Abbas said the response to his election call last month was violence, and said those opposed to new polls should challenge the decision in the courts, not in the streets.

Hamas controls the Palestinian government after defeating Fateh in an election a year ago. Abbas was elected separately two years ago.

Thousands of Fateh supporters waved the movement’s yellow flags and chanted slogans against Hamas group and its Iranian backers. Several Fateh activists briefly carried Abbas on their shoulders. “Go, go, until liberation,” they chanted. Others fired in the air.

“The priority for me is preserving national unity and preventing and prohibiting internal fighting,” Abbas told the crowd. “Palestinian blood is a red line.” Abbas did not say how he would stop the bloodshed.

Thirty-five people have been killed in several weeks of fighting between armed security forces loyal to Fateh or Hamas.

The rally in the West Bank city of Ramallah was organised as to display Fateh power against Hamas — which is stronger in the Gaza Strip — but Abbas aides said the moderate Palestinian leader would also give coalition talks with Hamas another chance.

Negotiations on bringing Fateh into the Hamas-led Cabinet are to resume soon and continue for two weeks, said Rafiq Husseini, a senior Abbas aide. If the talks fail, he said, Abbas would proceed with his plan to call early elections.

In his speech, Abbas did not make clear whether he was still determined to go ahead with early elections to resolve the problem of the divided Palestinian government and made no reference to a resumption of coalition talks.

In condemning factional fighting, Abbas said: “We had pointed our guns against the [Israeli] occupation, and that is a legitimate right, but when the guns are turned against each other, that is forbidden.” In the past, Abbas had criticised violence against Israel, and it was not clear why he seemed to be endorsing it now, at least retroactively.

Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mark Regev refused to respond directly to Abbas’ comment. Regev said Israel sees Abbas as a negotiating partner who “shares our belief in a  two-state solution and reconciliation.” The international community has demanded that Hamas, which calls for Israel’s destruction, recognise the Jewish state’s right to exist, renounce violence and accept past agreements with Israel. Hamas has refused.

Abbas reiterated that the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which he heads, is responsible for negotiations with Israel. Outlining his positions in possible talks with Israel, he said he will not accept the formation of a Palestinian state in provisional borders, as Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni proposed last month in a private initiative.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Thursday that the idea is a “non-starter.” In previous coalition talks with Hamas, Abbas insisted that Hamas soften its positions so the programme of the new coalition will be acceptable to the international community and help end a 10-month international economic boycott.

Hamas is going into the talks with a revised agenda, including a demand that the current prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, remain in the job, said Hamas Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. In the previous round of talks, Haniyeh had agreed in principle to step down and let an independent be appointed in his place.

Despite the bloodshed and rancor between Hamas and Fateh, both appear to have little choice but to return to coalition talks and find a way to share power. Abbas would likely have trouble holding early elections over Hamas’ objections. Hamas, meanwhile, is concerned it will lose popular support if the fighting continues.

As part of the renewed negotiations, Abbas was to meet in Syria next week with President Bashar Assad, who is hosting the top leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian groups. It is not clear whether Abbas will meet in Syria or a subsequent trip to Lebanon with the Hamas supreme leader, Khaled Mishaal.

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