Mahmoud Abbas: 'I'm ready to go to Gaza tomorrow'

Palestine Authority president says he wants to end division, but reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah will not happen overnight, observers say.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, says he is ready to go to Gaza 'tomorrow'.
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RAMALLAH // A day after Palestinians rallied for an end to their leaders' bitter feud, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, declared yesterday that he was "ready to go to Gaza tomorrow".

It would be Mr Abbas's first trip to the Hamas-ruled enclave since 2007, when the Islamist group drove out his Fatah faction and turned his compound there into a prison. Numerous attempts since then to help the two groups to resolve their differences have failed.

Yesterday, however, Mr Abbas offered a glimmer of hope. He told the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organisation that long-delayed presidential and legislative elections would be held "within six months or as soon as possible" and surprised observers by announcing publicly for the first time that he would not run for re-election.

The 75-year-old member of the Palestinian "old guard" then said he was "ready to go to Gaza tomorrow in order to end the division".

Hamas welcomed the overture, which came after Tuesday's invitation from Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, to take part in reconciliation talks.

Mr Haniyeh was "discussing with advisers, government members, Hamas leaders and others a mechanism to welcome the president and end division," the group said.Despite the conciliatory tone from both sides, it will not be easy to mend the rift.

Ideologically Hamas's Islamist and fiercely anti-Israel agenda runs counter to the secular-minded leaders of Fatah and their willingness to negotiate peace with Israel.

Moreover, the United States and the European Union, the main supporters of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, consider Hamas a terrorist organisation and one of its main allies, Iran, a regional menace.

Neither side seems able to resist opportunities to take digs at the other. Even yesterday, as Mr Abbas extended what appeared to be an olive branch, he said Hamas was responsible for missing previous "historic opportunities" for reconciliation.

On the ground, tensions linger. In Gaza, witnesses said Hamas supporters attacked student demonstrators yesterday at the pro-Fatah Al Azhar University. They said the men, dressed in plain clothes, beat several students and prevented dozens more from staging a rally on the campus after they were denied permission to do so by Hamas authorities.

The Gaza interior ministry spokesperson, Ihab al Ghussein, denied that Hamas was behind the student attacks and what "happened at the university was a problem between students".

Youth organisers in Gaza say they have faced serious intimidation by Hamas security forces since they began planning rallies on Facebook several weeks ago.

Protest organisers in the West Bank also say they have faced sporadic attacks by plainclothes thugs and detention by policemen, most recently on Tuesday, when young demonstrators in Manara Square in Ramallah complained that men in civilian clothes had harassed women and attempted to intimidate protesters.

Saji Mafarjeh, 23, a university student who said he would remain in the square until the Palestinian leadership repaired their differences, said: "They took one of the guys out and slapped him, and they told him that they would hurt him if he stayed at the protest."

Uniformed police officers and others arrived in the square later and tried to disperse the demonstrators until officers of the Palestinian Authority's newly trained security services restrained them and instead distributed food to the demonstrators.

"They stopped the bad guys who were trying to hurt us," said Ahmed Barghouti, 19, who said he, too, would continue to sleep in the square each night.

Despite receiving protection, yesterday the number of protesters had dwindled to a few dozen. The roundabout was teeming with vehicles and people shopping.

Najeeb Ezam, an assistant at a nearby pharmacy, said that while he respected the demonstrators, most Palestinians were unwilling to sacrifice recent economic improvements with mass rallies.

"Life has been going more smoothly over the past two years," he said. Palestinians were more interested in earning international sympathy to counter Israel, and "we know in the long run we can't achieve anything" by such demonstrations, he said.

But Hamza Obeid, 22, one of more than a dozen on hunger strike in the square, said: "We're not moving until the division ends."

* With additional reporting by Reuters