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Fatah and Hamas meet to calm tensions

The militant Hamas group and the rival Fatah Party agreed Sunday to work together to restore calm following clashes and protests across the Palestinian areas over their struggle for control over security forces.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The militant Hamas group and the rival Fatah Party agreed Sunday to work together to restore calm following violent clashes and mass protests across the Palestinian areas over their struggle for control over security forces.

But friction threatened to boil over again as neither the Hamas-controlled Cabinet nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ more moderate Fatah faction backed down from their conflicting demands.

Supporters of the two sides traded gunfire and hurled stones and firebombs Saturday, and Fatah leaders warned the violence could deteriorate into civil war.

No firm agreement
In a meeting that began late Saturday and ended early Sunday, Hamas and Fatah officials agreed to take steps to end the fighting.

“The two movements have agreed to call on our Palestinian masses to stop all displays that might lead to tension,” Fatah official Maher Mekdad said, reading a joint statement. “They agreed to work together to strengthen national unity.”

But no agreement was reached on control of the security forces, participants said. Outside the meeting, which was mediated by Egyptian security officials, thousands of Fatah supporters shouted anti-Hamas slogans.

Abbas, whose Fatah Party lost January parliamentary elections, has been trying to shore up his already considerable powers to marginalize the rival Hamas group, which calls for the destruction of Israel and is listed as a terror organization by the United States and the European Union.

After the Hamas Cabinet took office last month, many Western nations froze desperately needed aid to the Palestinian government. The government is nearly three weeks late in paying March salaries to its 165,000 employees and Hamas officials say they do not know when they will have the needed money.

The government’s isolation deepened after Hamas officials defended suicide bombing carried out by the Islamic Jihad militant group. Eight Israelis died in the Tel Aviv bombing April 17.

Israeli interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the attack completed “the transformation of the Palestinian Authority to a terrorist authority.”

“The international community will now understand that we don’t have a partner,” he told his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, according to participants.

Power struggle
The weekend unrest followed Abbas’ efforts to take control of all the Palestinian security forces, including those traditionally under the Interior Ministry. Hamas responded by saying it would form its own shadow army, made up of militants and headed by a top fugitive that Israel has been hunting for years.

Abbas promptly vetoed that plan, and Hamas’ political chief, Khaled Mashaal, accused him of cooperating with Israel and the United States and “plotting against us.”

Fatah leaders shot back that Mashaal, who spoke from his base in Syria, was trying to ignite a civil war. Tens of thousands of Fatah loyalists on Saturday took to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, demanding Mashaal apologize.

On Sunday, more than 4,000 people — Palestinian security officers and Fatah supporters — marched in the West Bank town of Jenin, chanting anti-Mashaal slogans. Dozens of security officers and Fatah gunmen fired weapons into the air.

Mashaal said his comments were misinterpreted.

Abbas has powers that “we highly respect and appreciate,” Mashaal said Saturday. “The remedy is through dialogue, understanding and recourse to law, not to weapons.”

Abbas said he wanted to avert further tensions in the Palestinian territories and would tackle the matter through unspecified “quiet political channels.”

He did say there were significant gaps between his policy and Hamas’, including the Islamic movement’s refusal to accept past peace agreements with Israel.

“We must find solutions, we must reach a middle ground,” he said. “In the meantime, we don’t want the situation to escalate, we will not allow a civil war and we will not tolerate military confrontations.”

Hamas officials tried to distance their government from Mashaal’s remarks, saying they reflected his own opinion, and not the government’s. But at the same time, the government remained committed to forming its army of thousands of militants.

Interior Minister Said Siyam, who announced the new force earlier the week, said Saturday that he would pursue his plans — despite Abbas’ veto — and would meet with the force’s designated head, fugitive Jamal Abu Samhadana, to discuss when he would take over his new duties.

In an interview with the London-based Sunday Telegraph, Abu Samhadana said the force would form the "nucleus" of the future Palestinian army.”

“We have one enemy,” Abu Samhadana said. “They are Jews ... I will continue to carry the rifle and pull the trigger whenever required to defend my people.”

Rafiq Husseini, a top Abbas adviser, told Hamas officials in the emergency meeting Saturday that Abbas was determined to stop the creation of the new security force.