- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

TEL AVIV — Rival Palestinian factions reported a cease-fire deal yesterday after militants fired on the entourage of Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar of Hamas and mortar shells landed near the Gaza residence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. Abbas’ call for early elections seemed to only fuel the escalation toward a Hamas-Fatah civil war.

But Hamas official Ismail Rudwan told Reuters news agency that the groups had agreed to resume talks on forming a unity government, halt armed displays, return security forces to their headquarters, release men abducted by each side and end a siege of government ministries. A top Fatah official later confirmed the agreement.

In the day after Mr. Abbas’ nationally televised invective against Hamas, the militants from Fatah took over two government ministries and Gaza Strip residents stayed off the streets for fear of getting caught in the crossfire. Still, internecine fighting took the lives of two Palestinians in Gaza — a member of the president’s security detail and a 19-year-old woman in Gaza City — and wounded dozens.

In an earlier attack blamed on Hamas, dozens of gunmen raided a training camp of Mr. Abbas’ Presidential Guard near his residence, killing a member of the elite force.

After nightfall, the bullet-riddled body of a top security officer affiliated with Fatah, Col. Adnan Rahmi, was discovered in northern Gaza several hours after he disappeared, the Associated Press reported, citing Palestinian medical officials and his family. No group took responsibility, but Col. Rahmi’s family blamed Hamas for the killing.

Responding to the early election challenge for the first time, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said the Islamist militants wouldn’t participate in the vote.

“The speech of Abbas isn’t unifying, but it is incendiary,” and it “offends the martyrs of the Palestinian people,” he said.

Mr. Abbas, who took the gamble of agreeing to stand for re-election as well as hold new parliamentary elections, met with members of the Palestinian Election Commission yesterday to signal that he was serious about early elections.

A poll released by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey taken before the speech indicated Mr. Abbas’ proposal got 61 percent approval rating. The same poll showed Mr. Abbas and Mr. Haniyeh running a statistical dead heat in a theoretical presidential showdown.

Meanwhile, approval ratings of Palestinian parties and leaders have dropped across the board.

“The street is divided, but more people support this action [Abbas] is entertaining,” said Said Zeedani, a Ramallah-based political analyst. “People want to see a way out of this situation. He is conscious of that. Without the support of the street, a lot of this speech is mere words.”

During Mr. Abbas’ address on Saturday, the president omitted a timetable for a new election, a move seen as signaling the possibility of renewed talks with Hamas.

Palestinians, by and large, oppose the fighting as a disastrous implosion of their six-year uprising against Israel, and they also know that Hamas-Fatah turf wars and bad blood have a dynamic that is spinning out of control.

“Whenever there is tension, Fatah and Hamas lose in popularity,” said Jamil Rabah, the director of the public opinion research firm Near East Consulting. “People want unity, they want brothers to act as brothers, and they don’t want war.”

And even as an Egyptian negotiator arrived to begin calming the sides, the atmosphere in Palestinian territories reflected more the partisan rivalry. Fatah rallies in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp, central Ramallah and the northern West Bank city of Jenin drew more than 100,000 supporters.

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator, said she supports elections as long as both sides agree to them.

“The current dynamic cannot be sustained. … We have total paralysis in the political system. We are facing a serious disintegration.”

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