- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia joined rival Palestinian groups in a call for unity yesterday, hoping they could work together to ensure calm and keep the Gaza Strip from plunging into chaos if their ailing leader, Yasser Arafat, dies.

But in a sign of the challenges ahead, the Islamic militant group Hamas issued what it called an “urgent demand” for a formal role in Palestinian decision making in the post-Arafat era.

“This time is very sensitive. It’s a historic time. There is no space for any unilateral decisions,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, alluding to Fatah, Mr. Arafat’s core organization.

“Everyone now is calling for the formation of a united Palestinian leadership. This is a demand of our people,” he said.

Mr. Abu Zuhri called for a joint leadership to serve in an advisory role during a “transitional period until we have an election in which our people will be able to choose their representatives.”

Hamas, which boycotted the only Palestinian general election in 1996, has recently agitated for a role in the Palestinian leadership. New national elections have not been set, though a voter registration drive was recently concluded, with Hamas taking part.

As Mr. Arafat receives emergency medical treatment in France, Mr. Qureia and other Palestinian officials have held a flurry of meetings with political and security officials trying to ensure calm, especially in Gaza, where rival groups and security officials have fought in the streets, jockeying for power before Israel’s planned withdrawal from the coastal strip next year.

Traveling in a motorcade that included eight vehicles of security forces, Mr. Qureia met for four hours yesterday with representatives of 13 factions — including Hamas and Islamic Jihad — as well as security chiefs, lawmakers and Fatah officials. Such a broad gathering is extremely rare.

After the meeting, Mr. Qureia said the security commanders were committed to a joint plan “to ensure security and order.”

The political factions said they would work together with the Palestinian government “to reach a national program and a national plan and to achieve a political partnership.”

Mr. Qureia declared himself encouraged by the meeting and said the groups would meet again to discuss the possibility of a cease-fire and “restoring law and order and security control.” He returned to the West Bank after the meetings.

Mr. Qureia has tried to persuade militants to accept a cease-fire in hopes of restarting peace talks with Israel, but Mr. Abu Zuhri ruled that out.

Hamas’ representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, said the militant group would not stop fighting, even if Israel withdraws from Gaza. Hamas also would reject any Arafat successor it feels has Israel’s backing.

“We will not accept a leadership that is brought by Israeli tanks,” he told a rally in south Beirut yesterday. “Our sole legitimate choice is resistance until we regain our rights.”

All the groups at the Gaza talks — including Hamas — called for unity yesterday, and it was unclear if comments from Mr. Abu Zuhri and other Hamas leaders portend the power struggle widely expected when Mr. Arafat dies.

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