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Palestinians holdunity talks

Palestinian Prime Minister Qureia joined rival Palestinian groups in a call for unity Saturday, hoping they could work together to ensure calm and keep the Gaza Strip from plunging into chaos if Yasser Arafat dies.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Seeking calm and unity, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia asked militant factions to refrain from attacks inside Israel, an Israeli newspaper reported Sunday, as the Palestinians awaited word on their critically ill leader, Yasser Arafat.

At a rare meeting with Qureia in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, the Islamic militant group Hamas joined a call for unity and demanded a role in Palestinian decision-making in the post-Arafat era.

But it appeared to reject any suggestion of a cease-fire.

“The resistance continues and will stop only if the occupation ends,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

“This time is very sensitive. It’s a historic time. There is no space for any unilateral decisions,” he said, alluding to Fatah, Arafat’s core organization. “Everyone now is calling for the formation of a united Palestinian leadership. This is a demand of our people.”

The Haaretz newspaper reported that Qureia asked Hamas to halt operations inside Israel to forestall Israeli retaliations and allow a new Palestinian leadership to establish itself.

Qureia and Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s deputy on the powerful executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, are widely expected to wield power in the West Bank and Gaza after Arafat’s death, at least for a transition period.

Trying to ensure calm
Both Qureia and Abbas have denounced attacks against Israeli civilians as damaging to the Palestinian cause. But the latest plea to Hamas comes amid fears of a chaotic breakdown of order when Arafat dies, with Hamas trying to preclude any peace overtures between Israel and Arafat’s successors.

Hamas is the chief rival of Fatah and rejects Israel’s right to exist.

It has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks inside Israel that have killed hundreds of Israelis during the four-year-long violence. Its most recent assault was a double suicide bombing on buses in the southern city of Beersheva on Aug. 13, killing 16 people. An attack in Tel Aviv last week that killed three Israelis was claimed by another group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Hamas militants also have hammered Jewish settlements in Gaza and Israeli towns across the security fence with homemade rockets, prompting a harsh Israeli response.

Hamas’ representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, also signaled no letup in attacks and indicated the militants would reject any Arafat successor it believes has Israel’s backing.

“We will not accept a leadership that is brought by Israeli tanks,” he told a rally in south Beirut on Saturday. “Our sole legitimate choice is resistance until we regain our rights.”

Unusual meeting
The unusual four-hour gathering in Gaza included representatives of 13 factions as well as security chiefs and Palestinian lawmakers.

Despite the differing tacks, Qureia said he was encouraged by the meeting. The groups would meet again to discuss a possible cease-fire and “restoring law and order and security control,” he said before returning to the West Bank.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian security chief who accompanied the 75-year-old Arafat to France last week for medical treatment, was returning to the West Bank city of Ramallah on Sunday to brief the Palestinian leadership on Arafat’s condition.

Dahlan and Arafat’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh had an extended meeting with Arafat’s wife, Suha, and French doctors.

Abu Rdeneh denied that Arafat was in a coma but said the veteran Palestinian leader “is under strict medical observance. We hope that in the coming few days we will be able to know exactly what he is suffering from. So far, nobody could diagnose the situation.”

On Friday, the Palestinian envoy to France, Leila Shahid, said Arafat was in a coma and “at a critical point between life and death.”