updated 12/20/2006 7:42:36 AM ET 2006-12-20T12:42:36

Hamas policemen and rival forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas withdrew from Gaza’s streets on Wednesday as a fresh ceasefire aimed at halting a slide to civil war appeared to hold.

Ten Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Abbas called on Saturday for early elections to break a political deadlock with the Hamas government and get Western sanctions lifted.

Palestinian sources said they expected Abbas would hold long-awaited talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the coming days. Olmert told reporters the meeting would be "very soon" but gave no date.

While such a meeting would be seen as a possible spur to reviving peace talks between Israel and the moderate Abbas, Olmert has said the Palestinians could expect little until a soldier held captive in Gaza since June was freed.

The meeting would be the first formal talks between the two leaders since Olmert took over as prime minister in January.

Slideshow: Growing violence Israel refuses to deal with the Hamas Islamist movement, which formally seeks the Jewish state’s destruction.

A senior aide to Abbas said the president planned to issue a decree next week to lay the legal foundations for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections, which Hamas has described as a “coup” and unconstitutional.

Hamas, which trounced Abbas’s once dominant Fatah in parliamentary elections last January, has said it would boycott any new polls. No date has been announced.

Al-Qaida weighs in
Al-Qaida’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri said elections would not free Palestinian land and would deal a blow to what he called holy war against Israeli occupation.

“Those who are trying to free Islamic land through elections that are based on secular constitutions ... will not free a grain of Palestinian sand, but will choke jihad,” he said in the tape broadcast by Al Jazeera television.

Palestinians of all political stripes, including Hamas, reject any attempt to portray their conflict with Israel as part of any wider battle between Muslims and the West.

“The scope of damage and defamation that al-Qaida has done to our cause ... is more than the damage inflicted by our enemies,” said Nimer Hammad, a political adviser to Abbas.

Palestinian security sources said there had been no incidents overnight in Gaza, where days of internal fighting has drawn increasing concern from Arab and Western countries.

“There is a political dispute, resolve it politically,” John Ging, a senior U.N. official in Gaza, told a news conference.

The world body had to close some food distribution centers and schools it runs in Gaza because of the mayhem, Ging added.

Despite throwing down the gauntlet to Hamas, Abbas has left the door open for the formation of a Fatah-Hamas coalition with a “technocrat” cabinet that could satisfy the West.

Hamas and Fatah tried for months to form a unity government to end a power struggle, but talks foundered.

The Islamists have struggled to govern since taking office in March under the weight of sanctions imposed over its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce violence.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.


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