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Hamas strongman in Gaza rejects unity deal

- Associated Press - Sunday, February 12, 2012

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — A rare public rift broke open Sunday in the usually tightly disciplined Islamic movement Hamas over a reconciliation deal that would require it to relinquish key areas of control in the Gaza Strip.

The deal, brokered by Qatar, was signed last week in Doha by Hamas' top leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, and the chief of the rival Fatah party, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The agreement is to end nearly five years of separate governments — Hamas' in Gaza and Mr. Abbas' in the West Bank — by establishing an interim unity government headed by Mr. Abbas that would prepare for Palestinian elections.

Senior Hamas figures in Gaza, who stand to lose most from the deal, said it was unacceptable, while top Hamas loyalists in the West Bank defended the agreement. The argument raised new questions about the ability of Mr. Abbas and Mr. Mashaal to implement the deal, seen as their best shot yet at healing the rift following Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza in 2007.

Mr. Mashaal might be able to put down the unprecedented rebellion against him but would need the good will and cooperation of Hamas leaders in Gaza to make the agreement work.

Gaza strongman Mahmoud Zahar, one of the masterminds of the Gaza takeover, said Mr. Mashaal did not consult with others in the movement before signing the deal. Giving Mr. Abbas the post of interim prime minister is "wrong" and "strategically unacceptable," Mr. Zahar was quoted as telling the Egyptian news agency MENA on Saturday.

On Sunday, the head of the bloc of Hamas legislators in Gaza, Ismail al-Ashkar, alleged that Fatah has not carried out promised confidence-building measures, such as releasing Hamas loyalists held in the West Bank.

"If the elections are to heal all our chronic, complicated problems, how can we have transparent and fair elections under such conditions," Mr. al-Ashkar said. "If this agreement is to work, we need to improve it."

Last week, Mr. al-Ashkar's parliament bloc came out against the agreement.

In contrast, Hamas lawmakers from the West Bank supported the Doha agreement across the board, according to statements and interviews published on Hamas' official website. Such public debate is rare in the secretive, tightly organized Hamas.

The criticism of the Hamas leaders in Gaza highlights the vulnerability of the Doha agreement.

Mr. Abbas needs to satisfy international demands that the interim government — to consist of politically independent technocrats — is not a front for Hamas, shunned as a terror group. If it is seen as too close to Hamas, the Palestinians likely would lose hundreds of millions of dollars in Western aid.

At the same time, he risks sabotage from Hamas leaders in Gaza if he tries to strip them of too much of their power.

"If Abbas forms his government with one color, it won't work in Gaza," said Raed Naerat, a West Bank analyst close to Hamas. "The ministers should be acceptable to Hamas officials."

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