- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Islamic Jihad militant group rejected a call yesterday from Mahmoud Abbas to halt rocket attacks on Israeli towns, dealing a new blow to the Palestinian leader. Israel responded to the attacks with air strikes against Gaza targets.

In another setback for Mr. Abbas, a last-minute dispute within his ruling Fatah party threatened to divide the movement a day before a key election deadline. The dispute between Fatah veterans and its “young guard” was the latest sign of disarray in the party, which faces a stiff challenge from the Islamic group Hamas in Jan. 25 parliamentary voting.

Mr. Abbas traveled to Gaza yesterday for talks with the militant groups, in part to halt growing violence along Israel’s border with Gaza. Israel has put heavy pressure on the Palestinian Authority president to stop militants from firing rockets.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, a participant in the meeting, said Mr. Abbas urged all Palestinian groups to honor a cease-fire reached with Israel in February.

“We demand everyone be committed to the truce,” Mr. Erekat said. “We consider the truce a matter of high national interest.”

But Islamic Jihad, which has been responsible for most of the rocket fire, rejected the appeal. Spokesman Khaled Batch accused Israel of violating the cease-fire, and said attacks were the only proper response. “I think the continuation of resistance is what’s better for the Palestinian people,” he said.

New rocket fire was reported in southern Israel late yesterday, and the army quickly responded with an air strike on a suspected launch site in northern Gaza. No injuries were reported.

Since Israel’s withdrawal in September from the Gaza Strip, militants have continued to fire homemade rockets into southern Israel. Although the rockets are notoriously inaccurate, more Israeli towns, including the city of Ashkelon, are in rocket range now that Israel is out of Gaza.

Israel has responded with numerous air strikes on suspected launch sites in northern Gaza. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has approved a buffer zone in northern Gaza, although the army said it has not implemented the plan, which includes firing on anyone who enters the area.

A spike in violence could undermine Mr. Abbas as Fatah gears up for the parliamentary elections. Adding to his troubles, Fatah has been bitterly divided between party veterans and a young generation of activists demanding a bigger role in party decision-making.

Mr. Abbas was racing to repair the rift ahead of a deadline today for the party to submit its final list of candidates for the parliamentary elections.

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