Abbas hopes to meet Olmert before year-end

news52.jpgGAZA CITY (AFP) — The embattled Gaza Strip breathed a sigh of relief Thursday as a truce between rival Palestinian factions took hold and President Mahmoud Abbas urged all sides to consolidate the ceasefire.

No clashes between Abbas’ Fateh Party and the ruling Hamas movement have been reported since early Wednesday, when a four-hour gunbattle in southern Gaza City killed two Fateh loyalists hours after a new truce went into effect.

Abbas urged the rival factions to respect the truce again on Thursday, following a similar call the night before. “I call upon my people to show responsibility and work to consolidate the calm in the Gaza Strip,” he told a news conference in Ramallah. “I’m convinced that everybody wants security and civil peace.” Hundreds of people, waving the Palestinian standard, gathered in front of the parliament building in Gaza to call on the rivals to respect the truce and restart talks on forming a coalition government.

“O Hamas, O Haniyeh, we want a government of national unity immediately,” they chanted. “Enough with the battles, we want to live in security.” Abbas’ call for early elections on Saturday was roundly condemned by Hamas as tantamount to a coup and sparked four days of fierce factional battles.

On Thursday, an activist died of wounds received during the fighting, bringing the toll from the clashes to 14. Dozens were also wounded. But Abbas reiterated that despite his call for the early polls, he was still open to forming a coalition government with Hamas.

His spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP, however, that no preparations have been made for a new round of talks.

A Hamas spokesman told AFP that the ruling Islamists were also favourable to dialogue and that Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was ready to meet with Abbas in Jordan, as suggested earlier in the week by King Abdullah.

“We have not received an official invitation. If such an invitation is sent to us, we will accept,” he said.

The latest truce announced by Abbas and Haniyeh late Tuesday — after a previous ceasefire between the factions held barely for 24 hours — came after the Palestinian president spoke by phone with King Abdullah, who offered to host a meeting between the two rival leaders.

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

The Palestinian president announced his intention to call early polls as a way to resolve a months-long standoff with the ruling Islamists after talks over forming a national unity government collapsed over Hamas’ refusal to bend to the West’s demands to renounce violence, recognise Israel and 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.

Also Thursday, Abbas said that he hoped to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before the end of the year. It would be the first meeting between the two leaders in six months.

“Discussions on preparing for the encounter continue and we hope that it will take place before the end of the year,” Abbas said.

On a visit to the region on Monday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for an initiative to jumpstart the Middle East peace process, in a slumber since 2000.

The following day, Olmert paid a surprise visit to Jordan, where King Abdullah  repeatedly called for reviving talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Olmert touched on the issue during a phone call with US President George W. Bush on Thursday, his office said.

“The prime minister spoke to the American president on the recent developments on the Israeli-Palestinian track and on the ways to move forward,” it said.

Meanwhile, a senior minister on Thursday said Israel should ignore a month-old ceasefire and strike back against Palestinian fighters firing rockets from the Gaza Strip in violation of the truce.

“No more, no more. It’s over. We can no longer sit back in the face of the Qassam” rockets, Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, a member of the important security Cabinet, told public radio.

“I say that whenever we see a Qassam launching cell in our sights, we should hit them,” he said. “If the fire continues we will return” to the Gaza Strip.

Under the November 26 ceasefire, the Jewish state withdrew its troops from the impoverished coastal strip and fighters were supposed to stop firing rockets.

“Several weeks after the ceasefire was agreed, it is being respected by one side and not by the other,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told public radio.

“We must evaluate the situation daily to see if there are any changes in the conditions” of the truce, Livni added.

The Israeli army says Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have fired more than 40 homemade rockets towards Israel since the truce came into effect. At least one Palestinian has been killed and three wounded by Israeli fire.

Five rockets were fired into southern Israel on Thursday, a military spokeswoman said. One exploded in Sderot, the town bordering the Gaza Strip that is often the target of Qassam attacks.

A building adjoining a community centre was damaged, but no one was wounded, the spokeswoman said.

During a visit to Sderot on Thursday, Trade Minister Eli Yishai urged the government to issue an ultimatum to the Palestinians to stop the attacks or face immediate reprisals, public radio reported.

Five Palestinians were lightly wounded when one rocket hit the town of Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip instead of its intended Israeli target, medical sources said.

The makeshift rocket smashed into the home of the Masri family, lightly wounding five people, the sources and witnesses said.

Thursday’s attacks came a day after seven rockets were fired by Palestinian fighters — the most on a single day since the ceasefire was agreed.

Olmert, who warned on Wednesday that Israel would not be able “to exercise restraint for much longer,” met top security officials, including Defence Minister Amir Peretz, to discuss Israel’s reaction to the violations.

Peretz told public radio he favoured “re-examining Israel’s policy of restraint” in order not to endanger the security of those living in areas targeted by the rockets.

Army chief Dan Halutz hinted that Israel was losing its patience over the Palestinian rockets, telling army radio that “everyone has the right of self-defence on the personal level as well as on the level of the state”.

Government officials say, however, that Olmert is poised “to continue restraint in order to give the ceasefire a chance”.

“Until something severe happens, the restraint policy will continue. The defence establishment has not been given any directives to end break the ceasefire,” one security official told AFP.

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