Hamas militia returns to Gaza, draws anger from Fatah officials

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – The Hamas-led government’s private militia returned to the streets of Gaza Saturday after a one-day absence, complicating efforts to end an increasingly bloody standoff with President Mahmoud Abbas’ rival Fatah movement.

Although the force was out in limited numbers, angry Fatah officials said the move risked setting off more violence and accused Hamas of using the militia as a bargaining chip in the stalemate with Abbas.

Abbas has issued an ultimatum to Hamas to accept by next week a plan for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The plan implies recognition of Israel and accepting it would effectively mean an end to Hamas’ stated aim of destroying the Jewish state.

Hamas officials signaled Saturday they would not honor the deadline.

The 3,000-strong Hamas militia has been at the center of the Palestinian infighting. Hamas’ decision to withdraw the black-clad gunmen from public areas Friday was widely seen as a conciliatory gesture.

Early Saturday, militia members were out again, this time stationed in pairs at several major intersections and near the homes of senior Hamas government officials. The situation appeared to be calm, and in some instances, Hamas gunmen chatted freely with regular policemen.

Government spokesman Ghazi Hamad said there were no plans to send the militia out in full force and the Hamas-run Interior Ministry will deploy it only in specific cases.

“There will not be any friction,” he said.

However, several hundred militants from a Fatah-linked militia demonstrated outside the parliament building in Gaza City, demanding that the Hamas militia be disbanded and calling on the group to accept Abbas’ plan.

Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, a Fatah spokesman, said the return of the Hamas militia, even in small numbers, was “unacceptable and illegal.”

“The lack of its presence on the streets yesterday brought great relief. Their return signals the possibility of new friction,” he said.

He accused Hamas of trying to carry out “political extortion” as the two sides continue a dialogue aimed at ending the standoff.

Abbas announced Thursday that he was giving Hamas 10 days to accept a proposal calling for a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Otherwise, he said, he will call a national referendum on the plan, which is expected to pass.

Hamas leaders are divided over the proposal, which was drawn up by senior Fatah and Hamas militants who are imprisoned by Israel. Prisoners held by Israel hold great weight in Palestinian society.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the group was not bound by the 10-day deadline. Abbas has given no indication that he would be flexible on the deadline.

Officials from the two sides, along with smaller Palestinian factions, had hoped to form a negotiating committee Saturday. But the talks broke down over where to hold negotiations. Fatah favors the West Bank, where Abbas’ headquarters are located. Hamas prefers its stronghold in Gaza.

Abbas has been locked in a power struggle with Hamas since the Islamic group defeated Fatah in legislative elections in January. Abbas, elected separately last year, has been seeking to curb Hamas’ authority in security matters and is eager to restart peace talks with Israel.

Hamas decided to form the militia after Abbas placed a loyalist in charge of forces that report to the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry. The militia was deployed for the first time earlier this month. That set off days of clashes with Fatah-dominated security forces that left 10 people killed.

Abbas hopes to persuade Hamas to abandon its violent ideology to lift the sanctions and pave the way for peace talks with Israel.

The militant group, which has killed scores of Israelis in suicide bombings, has resisted intense international pressure to renounce violence and recognize Israel, despite crippling economic sanctions that have brought widespread hardship throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said talks are impossible as long as Hamas wants to destroy his country.

He has said that if peace efforts remain stalled, he will unilaterally set a final border with the West Bank. Olmert’s plan calls for a significant pullback from the area, but falls short of a full withdrawal demanded by the Palestinians.

Abbas wants a future independent Palestinian state to include the Gaza Strip and all the West Bank and east Jerusalem – areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

AP-ES-05-27-06 1639EDT


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