Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thousands of Palestinians thronged major squares in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on Tuesday to deliver an impassioned appeal to their leaders to end the long-running feud that has divided the Palestinian people between two rival governments.

Demonstrators on each side of the Palestinian divide hoisted banners urging their leaders to unite the government that split after Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in June 2007, leaving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah Party ruling only the West Bank.

Past reconciliation attempts have failed and the marches seemed unlikely to bring the sides together because Fatah nor Hamas do not seem inclined to relinquish the power they have.

But if the campaign gains strength, it could pressure the rival governments to start talking again. Hamas, in particular, is waiting to see how the situation in neighboring Egypt evolves. The group hopes the next Egyptian government will ease or lift a crippling blockade of Gaza - a development that would strengthen Hamas and boost it in any future negotiations with Fatah.

Speaking to his government in Gaza, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said it was time for the sides to meet and set aside their differences and called on Fatah leaders begin the process of reconciliation.

Fatah spokesman Ahmed Assaf rejected the offer later Tuesday, saying it wasn't genuine.

"This call of Hamas for unity is not serious, it's rather a way to bypass the people's movement aimed at ending the split. Hamas turned down several initiatives for unity and if it was serious, it would have accepted these initiatives rather than calling for more talks."

The pro-reconciliation demonstration originally was organized by independent activists on Facebook influenced by the changes sweeping through the region. But Fatah and Hamas quickly jumped on the bandwagon, and the two parties clearly dominated Tuesday's rallies.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Gaza City to protest.

Young Hamas supporters were most prominently represented in Gaza, but small groups loyal to Fatah and other small Palestinian factions were also out, as were Facebook activists. There were some scuffles over internal disputes among the groups and four people were treated for wounds sustained by knives and rocks.

In Ramallah, the seat of the West Bank government, some 8,000 demonstrators - most of them university students and youths - marched through a central square, calling for national unity.

The division between the West Bank and Gaza - territories located on opposite sides of Israel that would one day make up a Palestinian state - is a major obstacle to Palestinian independence.

Abbas favors a peaceful settlement with the Israelis, though he halted talks late last year to protest Israeli settlement construction. Hamas has not renounced its commitment to Israel's destruction and opposes negotiations.


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