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WEST BANK: Abbas says he is ready to meet Hamas in Gaza to end division

March 16, 2011 | 11:15 am

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday declared a new initiative to end the division in the Palestinian ranks. He announced at a meeting in Ramallah of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council that he is ready to travel “tomorrow” to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to end the split.

"I am ready to go to Gaza tomorrow to end the division," Abbas said, "and form a government of independent nationalist figures to prepare for presidential and legislative elections, as well as elections for the Palestinian National Council [the PLO’s parliament-in-exile], within six months or as soon as possible.”

Abbas called on Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader who heads the government in Gaza and is a former prime minister whom Abbas had fired in 2007, to make the necessary arrangements with other factions  in Gaza to meet him at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza. Abbas said he hopes the arrangements will be ready in the next few days.

Hamas, which has been referring to Abbas as the president whose term has expired, was quick to respond, and it welcomed Abbas’ initiative.  Hamas officials said that Abbas’ initiative came in response to an invitation Haniyeh had made to Abbas on Tuesday to meet him in Gaza or anywhere else to discuss reconciliation.

But Abbas made it very clear that he is not going to Gaza to discuss reconciliation or to hold dialogue with Hamas. Rather, he is willing to go for only one reason: to set up a new government of independents to prepare for national elections. He said he was ready to postpone forming a new government in the West Bank under current Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, whose government resigned last month, if an agreement is reached on forming the proposed government.

Fayyad had actually proposed to Hamas last month to form a unity government to run the country and prepare for national elections; he said he was willing to travel to Gaza to discuss the matter with Hamas leaders. But they were quick to reject his initiative, accusing the Western-educated prime minister of being a U.S. puppet.

Abbas, meanwhile, reiterated that he is not interested in running for a second term.

Abbas was elected in March 2005, promising his constituency to bring them comprehensive peace through a negotiated settlement with Israel.  When that failed after Israel had refused to stop settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Abbas decided not to run again.

In January 2006, less than a year after Abbas was elected, legislative elections brought his rival, the Islamist Hamas movement, to power. Elections for president should have been held in March 2009 and for the legislative council in January 2010. But because of the June 2007 split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, when Hamas forces ousted Abbas’ army from the Gaza Strip, elections were suspended, and so was the parliament.

Since the split, Abbas and his Fatah group have been in a tug of war with Hamas. After waiting almost four years for the two sides to reunite, though, Palestinians have taken to the streets in a popular upheaval to force them to reconcile.

On Tuesday, thousands of Palestinians protested in the West Bank cities and Gaza Strip against the division. In Gaza, Hamas forces cracked down hard on the protesters, accusing them of being Fatah agents trying to destabilize its rule. The Palestinian Authority did the same n the West Bank, but to a lesser extent.

But apparently public pressure has made its mark on the leadership in Gaza and the West Bank, and the two sides are now talking about meeting to discuss reconciliation.

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank