Haniyeh calls for unity amid tension

Iran announces $50m aidGAZA CITY (AP) — The Hamas-led Palestinian government on Sunday renewed calls for a “national unity” coalition with rival factions in a bid to stave off rising tensions between the groups that have severely weakened the new Islamic leadership.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh extended the offer during an emergency meeting with his rivals. The meeting came amid a growing rift with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh Party and a spike in violence with Israel.

“We affirmed the issue of forming a national unity government is under consideration,” government spokesman Ghazi Hamad told reporters. “The door is open to Fateh,” he said, adding that any alliance would require substantial dialogue.

Hamas controls a solid majority in parliament but has said it would like additional parties to join its government in the name of Palestinian unity.

It was unclear whether Fateh would accept the offer. Fateh officials have rejected similar offers since Hamas defeated them in January legislative elections, and the party did not attend Sunday’s meeting, citing tight time constraints.

Fateh officials were not immediately available for comment.

Tensions have heightened in recent days since Haniyeh accused the Abbas, of trying to undermine the new government. Abbas aides have called Haniyeh’s comments unacceptable.

The infighting, along with an Israeli offensive in the northern Gaza Strip, has compounded the troubles of Haniyeh’s fledgling government, which is coping with a financial crisis that has left it broke and unable to pay the salaries of thousands of public sector workers.

Since taking office two- and-a-half weeks ago, Hamas has come under intense international pressure to renounce violence and recognise Israel’s right to exist. Western donors have cut off tens of millions of dollars in direct aid, and Israel has suspended the monthly transfer of tax it collects for the Palestinians.

Despite the financial crisis, Hamas has refused to moderate its ideology. On Friday, Haniyeh accused Abbas of forming “an unholy alliance” with the international community to weaken Hamas.

Abbas, who was elected separately last year, has taken several steps to consolidate power, enraging Hamas leaders.

He has appointed allies to key security positions and sent his personal security force to guard Gaza’s vital border crossing with Egypt.

The moves prompted Haniyeh to declare Friday that he is not a “puppet.”

Fateh officials, in turn, accuse the new leadership of sidelining and punishing Fateh officials in government positions.

Ahmad Abdel Rahman, a Fateh spokesman, said Sunday that Hamas is responsible for the Palestinians’ problems and urged the group to accept Abbas’ goal of restarting peace talks with Israel. He called on Hamas to accept previous peace deals with Israel reached over the past decade.

“Hamas is blaming President Mahmoud Abbas, but it should not blame anyone but itself,” he said. “Hamas needs to review its positions as soon as possible. Without doing so, the crisis will worsen.” Hamas has rejected the international community’s calls to renounce violence and recognise past peace agreements.

Instead, it has sent top officials on a tour of the Arab and Muslim world in hopes of raising enough money to keep the government afloat.

But time may be running out. In the first major sign of discontent with the new government, dozens of masked Palestinian police officers on Saturday blocked a main road in Gaza and briefly seized a government building to protest the delay in paying their salaries. Paychecks were due on April 1.

The outburst reflected a growing sense of desperation in the streets of Gaza as already impoverished Palestinians begin to feel the sting of the new government’s economic isolation.

Finance Minister Omar Abdel Razek said he was surprised at the violent outburst, since the payment of salaries was routinely delayed under the previous Fateh-led government.

Meanwhile, Israel has stepped up an offensive in the northern Gaza Strip, firing artillery shells and carrying out air strikes to halt rocket attacks aimed at Israeli towns. At least 16 Palestinians, including 13 fighters and a young girl, have been killed. No Israelis have died in the rocket fire.

Hamas, which has honoured a year-long ceasefire with Israel, has not participated in the attacks. But sworn to Israel’s destruction, it has done little to stop them.

Ahead of Sunday’s meeting, Islamic Jihad’s exiled leader, Ramadan Shallah, rejected calls to halt the rocket fire and pledged to continue efforts to carry out suicide bombings.

“Firing rockets will continue,” he said in a statement posted on the group’s website. He also said his group is making “nonstop efforts” to infiltrate suicide bombers from the West Bank into Israel. He said an Israeli military crackdown “might limit this effort, but it’s not going to stop it.”

Hamad, the Palestinian government spokesman, said the issue of rocket fire was addressed during Sunday’s meeting but said no decisions were made.

“We are in need for a joint formula,” he said. “These many issues need deep discussion and dialogues.”

On Sunday, Iran said Sunday it would give the Palestinian Authority $50 million in aid.

Iran has long had close ties to Hamas and is believed to have given money to the movement in the past — though the Shiite clerical-led government in Tehran has denied that, saying its support has only been moral.

But the new money, if given, would be the first time Iran has provided funds to the Palestinian Authority.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced the aid package Sunday during a conference held in Tehran in support of the Palestinians. Tehran had previously promised to help the Palestinians if other international funds were cut off, but Sunday’s remarks were the first time Iran has specified an amount.

Mottaki said the pledge was based a long-standing policy to support the Palestinians, Iranian state-television reported.

“Cutting the West’s financial aid to Palestine should not affect the will of the Palestinian people,” he was quoted as saying.

Iranian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called for other Islamic nations to give money as he met with Hamas political leader Khaled Mishaal.

“Muslim governments and nations, with comprehensive supports, should help the Palestinian government on the way of liberation of Jerusalem,” Ahmadinejad said.

Iranian parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said Tehran would likely increase the aid. “We should not allow the economic sanctions lead to failure of the Hamas-led government. If Muslim governments support, there will be no need to the US and Europe assists,” he said.

The funding could increase Iran’s influence with Hamas at a time when Tehran is also under international pressure to change its ways.

Mishaal reiterated the group’s refusal to meet the West’s demands, saying Saturday in Tehran that his government would “never recognise Israel.”

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