Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas offered Wednesday to form a new government with his bitter rivals in Hamas in an attempt to satisfy Palestinians demanding reconciliation between the Western-backed leader and the Islamic militant group.

Abbas also offered to go to the Gaza Strip, which he has not visited since Hamas overran his forces in 2007 and left the Palestinian Authority in control of the West Bank.

The rift is a major obstacle to the Palestinian objective of establishing an independent state incorporating both territories. Both sides are under heavy pressure to resolve their differences from tens of thousands of Palestinians who have been holding demonstrations inspired by the pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East.

Any effort to mend the Palestinian governments' four-year split is particularly perilous for Abbas, who risks alienating the U.S. and Europe, which consider Hamas a terrorist organization and gives Abbas' administration hundreds of millions of dollars in aid a year.

His outreach appears to reflect his loss of faith in the U.S.-backed peace process with Israel. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and won't renounce violence against the Jewish state or accept previous accords between Israel and the Palestinians. There is no sign it would be willing to do any of those things now.

"I declare that I am ready to go to Gaza tomorrow so as to end the split and form a new government," Abbas said in a speech before senior members of his Fatah Party.

Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had asked Abbas to visit as protesters gathered Tuesday in the defacto West Bank capital of Ramallah and the metropolis of Gaza City, waving the green, black, white and red Palestinian flag and chanting: "The people want an end to the division!"

Hamas loyalists initially joined - and sought to take over - the Gaza City demonstration. When those efforts failed, Hamas police beat up demonstrators with batons, chased out and punched reporters and seized activists' mobile phones. Fatah loyalists beat each other up on the sidelines of the Ramallah protest, apparently during an argument on whether to join the demonstrators or not.

On Wednesday, Hamas swiftly welcomed Abbas' offer, and spokesman Taher Nunu said the militants were "considering the necessary arrangements for this visit."

It was far from clear that the rhetoric would lead to any real reconciliation, however.

Abbas has promised to visit Gaza in the past as part of previous peacemaking attempts thwarted partly by deep reluctance on both sides to give up virtual one-party rule of the two territories.

In February, West Bank Prime Minister Salam Fayyad appealed to Hamas to join him in a united government, and even retain security control of Gaza until elections. But Hamas rejected the offer and some Fatah officials said they wouldn't accept it either.

Hamas does appear afraid, however, that Gaza demonstrators will evolve from calling for reconciliation to demanding an end of their tough rule.

A few dozen activists gathered in a Gaza City university on Wednesday, trying to organize their next moves. In videos posted up on Facebook, Hamas police lunged into the crowd, beating activists with sticks.


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