Thursday, 4 May 2006

Abbas seeks dialogue in a divided society

Palestinians' internal rifts deepen crisis

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- As conflict between Palestinian factions worsens and an economic crisis deepens, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has invited 120 political, business, and community leaders to meet and find solutions to end the turmoil.

Abbas's ''national dialogue conference," which was to have started Tuesday, has been postponed until mid-May. Some analysts said it could be the last chance to avert civil war -- and they said the delay suggests Hamas, Fatah, and other groups are so divided that they cannot even agree on how to talk through their deep differences.

Abbas is hoping the delegates can solve three major issues: the current political divisions within Palestinian society; relations with Israel; and reforming the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group founded by the late Yasser Arafat, so it can embrace Hamas for the first time and resume its role as the diplomatic representative of the Palestinians.

Two elections have left power in the Palestinian Authority divided between Abbas, the president, who is from the Fatah Party, and Hamas, which won a large majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council election in January and now controls the newly appointed Cabinet.

Abbas and the Fatah Party favor peace talks with Israel that would lead to a two-state solution, while Hamas refuses to recognize the Jewish state and seeks its total destruction. Hamas favors continued ''armed resistance" against Israel, although it has largely observed an informal truce for 15 months. Fatah wants a total cease-fire.

Hamas's surprise victory has prompted Western governments and Israel to cut off most funding of the Palestinian government, producing a dire financial crisis in the authority.

Abbas is proposing that Hamas run the internal affairs of the Palestinian Authority, with the PLO handling diplomacy. To achieve this power-sharing, he must persuade Hamas to join the PLO and then agree on a program acceptable to both sides.

Technically, the PLO remains the supreme representative of the Palestinians, a status that became blurred after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Israel and the international community found themselves negotiating with PLO leaders including Arafat and Abbas himself, some of whom also held positions in the Palestinian Authority and most of whom were also Fatah loyalists.

The crisis has been made more urgent by growing economic problems, triggered by past Fatah government corruption and exacerbated by an international boycott since Hamas's victory that has cut off international aid and left the Palestinian Authority bankrupt. More than 160,000 civil servants, whose salaries support one quarter of the population, have not been paid since February.

Walid Awad, Abbas's spokesman, wrote in the daily Jerusalem Post this week that if the suspension of financial assistance to the Palestinian government continued, ''it is likely that unemployment will skyrocket, the Palestinian education and health sector will crumble, crime rates will increase, chaos and civil disorder may engulf the Palestinian territory and perhaps beyond."

Salah Bardawil, spokesman for the Hamas parliamentary faction, said in an interview that Hamas would join Abbas's national dialogue and suggested that Hamas could work with the PLO, but that the differences were ''deep and serious."

''We don't want a confrontation with them," Bardawil said. ''We are prepared to recognize the PLO, but we want to see real reforms and changes in the PLO, which should be done through national dialogue."

He added: ''We are opposed to negotiations with Israel that do not produce anything and are a waste of time while Israel is carrying out its attacks and aggressions against the Palestinians and taking unilateral measures in the Palestinian areas."

One sign of the international community's growing despair was the resignation on Monday of James Wolfensohn as a special envoy representing the Middle East ''Quartet" of the United States, United Nations, European Union, and Russia.

''The Palestinians need to understand that it is not business as usual," Wolfensohn, the former World Bank president, said during a news conference in Washington with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. ''With the government of Hamas having taken over with the Palestinians, it's a very difficult moment to be able to try and negotiate any independent type of arrangements that would affect the future of Gaza and the West Bank, because of the emphasis that Hamas puts on the destruction of the state of Israel and the less than communicative relationship with that state."

Some Palestinian commentators share Wolfensohn's criticism of Hamas.

''The real problem is with those who are sitting in Damascus and who are pushing their noses into our affairs," said Yusef Kazaz, director of the Voice of Palestine radio station, which is affiliated with Fatah, referring to the exiled Hamas leadership based in Syria. ''Instead of trying to find solutions, they are busy fragmenting the Palestinian issue and putting it in the deep freeze after we've already been waiting for 50 years."

Wolfensohn's brief was to help the Palestinian economy after Israel's pullout from Gaza last year. But the entire agricultural export market from the Gaza Strip has been brought close to collapse by the repeated closure of the Karni border crossing, the main transit point for goods, food, and medicine between Gaza and Israel. Israel insisted it had warnings of another impending terrorist attack at the site, where a bombing in January 2005 killed six Israelis.

Last Wednesday, Palestinian police said they thwarted a major attack at Karni, stopping a car packed with explosives that was approaching the crossing from within Gaza.

Israel's Shin Bet secret service said the attempted attack was masterminded by Hamas military chiefs -- a claim strongly denied by Hamas leaders, who say they are still observing a year-long period of calm. Privately, Hamas leaders blamed Fatah for staging the incident.

Meanwhile, Fatah leaders have blamed Hamas for a leaflet distributed in Gaza last weekend signed by ''the Unification and Jihad of the Levant and Egypt," an Al Qaeda-affiliated group that claimed responsibility for last week's suicide attacks in Dahab and last year's bombings in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, and Amman, Jordan.

In the leaflet, the group threatened the lives of members of Abbas's inner circle, accusing them of being apostates. It was the first time such explicit threats had been issued against Palestinian leaders. Security was immediately stepped up around Abbas's home in Ramallah.

But Bardawil said Hamas would not let the crisis reach that point.

''Civil war is not a possibility," he said. ''It's a red line for both of us, no matter how deep our differences are. There will not be civil war. We haven't reached that level yet. And I hope we won't."

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