Published March 16, 2011
RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Palestinian president on Wednesday offered to go to the Gaza Strip for unity talks with his Hamas rivals, a day after Israel intercepted an arms shipment it said was sent by Iran to the Islamic militant group.
Mahmoud Abbas' gesture to Hamas suggests he has given up on reaching peace with Israel and will instead seek internal reconciliation at the risk of jeopardizing relations with the West. The U.S., Israel and EU consider Hamas a terror group.
Abbas has not visited Gaza since Hamas expelled his forces in a five-day civil war in 2007. Since then, his Western-backed Palestinian Authority has ruled only the West Bank. Repeated reconciliation efforts since then have failed.
Even with the best of intentions, it will be difficult for the sides to overcome their vast differences. Past reconciliation efforts have failed, with neither side eager to relinquish the power it has, and the bad blood from their 2007 violence remains.
Following parallel rallies in Gaza and the West Bank urging the rival Palestinian leaderships to reunite, Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, invited Abbas to come try to mend ties. With peace talks with Israel at a standstill and pro-democracy uprisings taking place across the Middle East, Abbas complied.
"I declare that I am ready to go to Gaza tomorrow to end the split and form a new government," Abbas said in a speech before senior members of his Fatah Party, referring to "this dark and dishonorable chapter of division."
Abbas' unity plan includes parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. Abbas told his Fatah allies that he would not seek re-election in that vote.
Despite the Hamas welcome to Abbas, its police forces lunged into a crowd of a few dozen activists on Wednesday and beat them with sticks. The previous day, Hamas police beat up demonstrators with batons, punched reporters and seized activists' mobile phones.
Bringing Hamas back into the Palestinian Authority could jeopardize the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual American and European aid the government depends on. That aid was withheld in the past when Hamas was part of the government because it refused to recognize Israel, renounce its violent campaign against the Jewish state or accept previous peace accords. There is no sign Hamas would be willing to do any of those things now, and violence continues.
A rocket from Gaza struck Israel early Wednesday, and Israeli hit back with an airstrike that killed two militants and wounded four.
Israel said the massive shipment of weapons it captured from the "Victoria" ship also proves Hamas' violent intentions.
Israel laid out an assortment of missiles and mortars at the Ashdod port in southern Israel alongside the ship its navy commandeered in international waters in the Mediterranean. Israel said the ship was on its way from Syria with weapons meant for Hamas in Gaza.
Among the weapons on board were advanced anti-ship missiles Israel said could alter the region's balance of power by impeding its ability to enforce a naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Military officials said Iran possessed the types of weapons found onboard. The military released images of instruction manuals in Farsi and said there were other clues that "explicitly" showed Iranian involvement.
"Every day, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist elements are making efforts to smuggle weapons into Lebanon and Gaza," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, after inspecting the haul.
"All those who question why Israel must stop ... and inspect ships en route to Gaza can find the answer right here in Ashdod," he said. "They were en route to terror organizations in Gaza but their ultimate target was the Israeli civilian population."
To get around its naval blockade, Israel says Hamas routinely has arms shipments delivered to Egypt, and then smuggled across the largely lawless Sinai peninsula into neighboring Gaza through a network of tunnels under the 9-mile (15-kilometer) border.
In two related developments, Turkey's government forced an Iranian cargo plane land in its territory to search for an alleged cargo of arms from Iran to Syria, and Egyptian forces seized five vehicles carrying weapons into the country from Sudan, apparently headed for Gaza. Egyptian officials said the trucks were carrying large quantities of mortars, rocket propelled grenades, rifles and explosives.
Lederman reported from Ashdod, Israel. Additional reporting by Associated Press writers Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, Diaa Hadid in Cairo and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City.