Closing ranks against Hamas, Egypt’s president invited Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders to a peace summit, officials said Thursday, the biggest show of support yet by moderate Arab states for beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The meeting will take place Monday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, said Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has invited Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Jordan confirmed Abdullah would attend.
Abbas will call for a resumption of peace talks with Israel, arguing that only progress toward Palestinian statehood can serve as a true buffer against Hamas, which took control of Gaza by force last week, Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said.
“The most important thing to realize is that time is of the essence,” Erekat said. “We need to deliver the end of occupation, a Palestinian state. If we don’t have hope, Hamas will export despair to the people.”
As immediate steps, Abbas will ask Israel to remove West Bank checkpoints that disrupt daily life and trade, and to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax funds Israel froze after Hamas came to power last year.
In Washington, Olmert said he would propose to his Cabinet on Sunday that it unlock frozen funds, thought he did not say how much money he thought Israel should free. Israel is holding about $550 million in tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinians.
Setbacks in statehood efforts
Despite the talk about peace, however, the Hamas takeover has dealt a setback to statehood efforts, with the Islamic militants in charge of Gaza and Abbas in charge of the West Bank.
Gaza militants fired nine rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot on Wednesday, slightly injuring one person. Hours earlier, Israeli troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles fatally shot four militants.
Mahmoud Zahar, the man widely believed to be leading Gaza’s new Hamas rulers, said his group would be open to a cease-fire with Israel if the army halted its activities there and in the West Bank. He said Hamas was capable of halting the frequent rocket attacks from Gaza. “But nobody will be the protector of the Israeli border,” he told The Associated Press.
In the West Bank, the Palestine Liberation Organization threw its full support behind Abbas’ decisions to dissolve the Hamas-led government and form a new, Fatah-led Cabinet.
Hamas is not a member of the PLO, which is dominated by Abbas’ Fatah movement. Although largely inactive in recent years, the PLO considers itself the sole representative of the Palestinian people, and can bestow legitimacy or take it away.
‘Illegal and illegitimate’
Technically, the Palestinian legislature would have to approve the emergency government after a month. However, it is controlled by Hamas and has been paralyzed for months, following Israel’s arrest of most Hamas legislators.
The PLO backing, which was to be approved procedurally later in the day, in effect sidelines the parliament.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri dismissed the PLO’s decisions as “illegal and illegitimate,” and he scoffed at the central council’s call for presidential and legislative elections once Hamas relinquished military control of Gaza.
A poll published Thursday showed 75 percent of Palestinians favor early elections.
If new presidential elections were to be held, 49 percent said they would vote for Abbas and 42 percent would vote for his political rival, deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, the survey said.
Seventy percent said the chances of getting a Palestinian state in the next five years are dim.
The poll by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research was conducted during and after the Hamas takeover of Gaza last week. It was conducted among 1,270 respondents in the West Bank and Gaza and had an error margin of 3 percentage points.
In a televised speech Wednesday evening, Abbas lashed out at Hamas, branding them “murderous terrorists” with whom he would have no dealings. It marked the first time since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza that Abbas laid out his case before the Palestinian people.
Abbas described in detail what he said was a Hamas attempt to assassinate him. He said he obtained footage of Hamas members dragging large amounts of explosives through a tunnel they had dug under Gaza’s main road—the one he takes to his office—and saying “this is for Abu Mazen,” his nickname. He said he sent the tape to Hamas’ supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, and to Arab leaders to illustrate Hamas' intentions.
He said Hamas was trying to build an “empire of darkness” in Gaza.
‘The trip is all Hamas’
Abu Zuhri hotly rejected Abbas’ statements. “What he said was disgusting and not appropriate for the Palestinian president,” he said. “The president has harmed himself with his words.”
At least 2,000 Hamas supporters took to the streets in Gaza City, denouncing Abbas as an agent of Israel and the United States. “Abbas, Abbas, the (Gaza) strip is all Hamas,” the crowd chanted.
In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Hamas officials claimed that Palestinian security stormed the house of Hamas leader Hassan Yossef, questioned his sons for three hours and confiscated a computer and documents. Yossef is in an Israeli jail.
In another development, 35 Gazans who had been stuck at the main Gaza-Israel passenger crossing for several days were sent to Egypt via Israel late Wednesday, an Israeli army spokeswoman said.
Among those who left were gunmen from Abbas’ Fatah movement, their wives and children.
Seventy had been authorized to leave, but half decided to stay in Gaza after discovering they were to go to Egypt rather than the West Bank, the spokeswoman said.
Earlier Wednesday, Israel took in several of the sick and wounded in the crowd.
Hundreds of men, women and children rushed to the crossing after the Hamas takeover, among them Fatah loyalists who feared they’d be harmed by Hamas, despite the militants’ offer of amnesty. By Thursday, the passage, rank with the stench of urine and garbage, was nearly empty after it became clear that a mass-exit to the West Bank was not approved.
The army spokeswoman said Palestinian dual nationals and foreigners working in Gaza were being allowed to pass through Israel on Thursday for other points. By midday, 60 Palestinian-Americans had left Gaza for Jordan, and eight World Bank employees also left the strip, she said.