WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the rival Palestinian security forces facing off in the Gaza Strip on Thursday pose "a very dangerous situation" that Palestinian leaders must confront.
Rice's words implied frustration with moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is in a power struggle with the militant Islamic group Hamas that now controls the parliament and Cabinet.
"It's a very dangerous situation and it's also the case that a lot of innocent Palestinians are being caught in the violence," Rice said after meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. "The Palestinian leadership has every obligation to get control of this."
At the same time, the Bush administration is urging Israel to talk to Abbas as long as Hamas is in power. In a meeting at the White House on Tuesday, President Bush also will urge Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert not to take any unilateral steps to redraw Israel's final borders with the Palestinians that would prejudice final status negotiations, the White House said.
In the region, a gun battle broke out early Friday between security forces loyal to Abbas and a new militia run by the Hamas-led government. Two police officers were wounded.
Abbas ordered the 3,000-strong Islamic militia off the streets; Hamas refused. Officials in Abbas' office said he would not use force, fearing a civil war. But his restraint risked making him look weak and unable to keep the militants in check.
"It's a very tense situation and one that we hope will be resolved," Rice said.
"We obviously will leave that to President Abbas, who we believe has the confidence of the Palestinian people and should be able to exercise his responsibilities as president of the country," Rice said.
The power struggle began after Hamas was the surprise winner of a parliamentary election in January. The Islamic militant group formed a government several weeks later to replace Fatah, the movement that ruled Palestinian politics for decades under the firm hand of Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004.
Abbas, elected to replace Arafat in January 2005, has three more years as president, regardless of who controls the Cabinet. He has tried to reduce Hamas power while persuading the world to deal with him directly.
He wants foreign governments to funnel foreign aid through his office, bypassing the Hamas-led government, which is facing a Western boycott. Although several European nations like the idea, Abbas has not won a public endorsement of that idea from the administration.
Hamas is not making direct threats against Abbas. Hamas instead ignores the demands of the 70-year-old Fatah leader.
"All Palestinian parties ought to respect the need of the Palestinian people to have a secure environment and not to have a situation in which there is violence in the streets," Rice said.
She noted that Abbas has long said the Palestinians must live under "one authority and one gun." Before the Hamas election victory, that was a statement taken to mean that Abbas would crack down on militant groups including Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide attacks on Israel.
"I can't think of any stable environment, especially a stable democratic environment, in which you have multiple militias and multiple security forces," Rice said.