Abbas Meets Hamas Leaders in Bid Toward Reconciliation

The meeting was the first to involve Abbas in a year and had a relatively modest goal - to arrange a trip by Abbas to Hamas-ruled Gaza for more talks; he has not set foot in the territory since the Hamas takeover in 2007.

The Palestinian president met Saturday in the West Bank with his rivals in the Hamas militant group in an attempt to end nearly four years of infighting that has complicated the quest for a Palestinian state.

The meeting was the first to involve Abbas in a year and had a relatively modest goal - to arrange a trip by Abbas to Hamas-ruled Gaza for more talks. He has not set foot in the territory since Hamas took over in 2007.

Mahmoud Abbas AP 28.10.2010

With the collapse of peace talks with Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Western-backed government have turned their attention to reconciling with the Iranian-backed Hamas movement that ousted his forces from the Gaza Strip in 2007 and left him governing only in the West Bank.

Palestinians have said that both territories should be included in the future Palestinian state.

Hamas and other Gaza militants oppose peace with Israel and have rained rockets and mortar fire down over the past week on Israeli communities across the border. No one has been killed, but the Israel Defense Forces have announced that it would be deploying the Iron Dome missile defense system in the coming days.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced Friday that the missile defense system would be deployed as an operational experiment. He said that the full deployment of the system would not be feasible for a few years, largely due to budgetary constraints.

Two more rockets were fired Friday, once of which damaged an Israeli home in southern Israel in the West Negev, and the other fell in an open field. No one was hurt.

Years of on-and-off talks between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement have produced many false starts. Even mediation by Egypt, before the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, failed to bring about a breakthrough.

Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed said the meeting was a positive discussion but no headway was made in setting Abbas' Gaza visit.

"We hope that all the obstacles will be removed. The most important thing is to get to a practical result, which won't happen before the president's arrival to Gaza," he said.

Ayman Hussein of the Hamas delegation told The Associated Press that Abbas said he wants one government to rule both the West Bank and Gaza and that a date needs to be set for Palestinian elections, which have had to be delayed because of the division.

Abbas has previously said elections would be held in September, but this is contingent on a deal being reached to allow the participation of Gaza. Hamas has said it will
boycott the elections in the event they take place.

Hamas lawmaker Aziz Duwaik said many issues were discussed in the meeting Saturday and practical steps will follow very soon, without elaborating.

Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza took to the streets earlier this month, calling on their governments to reconcile.

The discord between Fatah and Hamas has proven a significant obstacle to Palestinian statehood, making a peace agreement with Israel even more difficult to achieve. Talks between Israel and Abbas' Palestinian Authority collapsed last year after Israel resumed construction in the West Bank following a settlement freeze.

If a unity deal is reached, independent technocrats approved by both Hamas and Fatah would be appointed to temporarily govern the West Bank and Gaza until national elections. The winner would lead a united Palestinian Authority.

However, Abbas has not revealed what his plan for a unified Palestinian Authority would look like in practical terms, and the level of acrimony between the sides significantly diminishes prospects for a deal.

An outright Hamas election victory that excludes Fatah would also further stall peace efforts with Israel.

Although Hamas and Israel had largely stuck to a truce since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009, militants have resumed launching rockets and shelling from the Gaza Strip in recent weeks, leading to Israeli retaliatory air strikes.

In a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates Thursday, Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that he holds Hamas accountable for the recent rocket and mortar strikes emanating from the strip.

The defense minister said that because Hamas is in power in Gaza, they are responsible for the actions of Islamic Jihad and other factions in the strip, saying Hamas must control these groups.

Violence escalated significantly last Saturday, when Gaza militants fired more than 50 mortar shells into southern Israel. Hamas has taken responsibility for only some of the shelling.