Abbas calls for further restraint as shaky Gaza truce holds

news2.jpgGAZA CITY (AFP) — President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday called on rival Palestinian factions to show further restraint to firm up a shaky Gaza truce aimed at halting a surge of fighting and avoiding a slide into civil war.

“I call on Palestinians from all political factions to show responsibility and restraint,” Abbas told reporters in Ramallah.

“I am confident that they all want to see security restored and the law respected so that we can realise our goals of liberation and independence.” The Palestinian leader said that he was “not opposed to a new round of dialogue” on forming a government of national unity with Hamas, despite his call on Saturday for early elections.

The call for new polls was roundly rejected by Hamas and sparked four days of gunbattles between supporters of the ruling Islamists and Abbas’ Fateh faction in Gaza, clashes that killed 13 people and wounded dozens of others. An uneasy calm returned to the Gaza Strip for most of Wednesday, though armed men, some of them masked, continued to patrol the streets and security was beefed up around Abbas’ office — the scene of fierce combat earlier in the week. In an overnight four-hour gunbattle with Hamas fighters, two loyalists from  Fateh faction were killed only hours after the truce took effect late Tuesday, medics said.

The fighting turned a street in southern Gaza City into a veritable battlefield, with around 100 masked men trading fire with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, witnesses said.

After appealing for calm to end one of the worst crises in the Palestinian territories in decades, both Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas announced a new ceasefire late Tuesday.

A previous truce between the factions agreed late Sunday held for barely 24 hours, with six people killed in factional fighting in Gaza on Tuesday alone.

Abbas said the new truce had been hammered out after contacts with “friendly countries and friendly leaders” such as King Abdullah.

Officials in Amman had announced earlier that the King had phoned Abbas and offered to host a meeting between himself and the Hamas premier to defuse the crisis.

Palestinian government spokesperson Ghazi Hamad on Wednesday welcomed Jordan’s initiative.

“The general trend [in the government] is to accept the invitation once it is made official,” the Jordan News Agency, Petra, quoted Hamad as saying.

Abbas said he was prepared to “respond favourably” to the invitation. He was due to travel to Jordan on Sunday.

“Talks will focus on efforts to form a Palestinian national unity government and president Abbas’ call for early elections,” as well as attempts to revive peace talks with Israel, Palestinian Ambassador Attalah Khairy told AFP.

The deadly clashes, which have raised fears of civil war, erupted after Abbas announced on Saturday his intention to call early presidential and parliamentary elections as a way to resolve a months-long standoff with the ruling Islamists.

In a televised address Tuesday, Haniyeh once again rejected the election plan despite backing the ceasefire, and said he was still open to forming a coalition with Fateh.

Previous months-long talks between the two factions collapsed over Hamas’ refusal to bend to the West’s demands to recognise Israel, renounce violence and agree to past peace deals.

Haniyeh’s government has been boycotted by Israel and the West since it took office in March after a shock election win over Abbas’ long-dominant Fateh, plunging the Palestinian territories into their worst ever financial crisis.

Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman Zawahiri weighed into the crisis in a new video aired Wednesday in which he said only jihad, not elections, could bring about the liberation of occupied Palestinian territory.

“Any road other than jihad will only lead to loss,” Osama Ben Laden’s right-hand man said in the video on Jazeera television, slamming Hamas for joining the political process.

Amid the intra-Palestinian violence, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert paid a surprise visit to Jordan on Tuesday, after visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for an initiative to jumpstart the dormant peace process.

Olmert said Wednesday that Israel hoped for an end to the inter-Palestinian clashes while warning against continued rocket attacks on his country.

Israel would not be able “to exercise restraint for much longer” if Gaza fighters kept firing rockets into the Jewish state.

Seven such rockets landed in Israel Wednesday without causing casualties or damage, despite a ceasefire declared almost one month ago, the army said.

In Amman, Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit was briefed by Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Conference Ekmeluddin Ihsan Oglo on his mediation efforts in the Palestinian territories. 

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