- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas insisted yesterday that he will push ahead with new elections, despite a wave of factional fighting between his Fatah party and the rival Islamic group Hamas.

With British Prime Minister Tony Blair by his side, Mr. Abbas also reached out to Israel in hopes that momentum toward peacemaking would provide an electoral edge over Hamas.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, meeting with Mr. Blair earlier, said Israel is prepared to release seized Palestinian funds for “humanitarian” purposes.

Israel has withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinians since Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, won legislative elections in January. Israel has released small sums of money for health care and other humanitarian uses.

Tensions threatened to explode into more violence in the Gaza Strip late yesterday after a Fatah supporter was killed in a gunfight and a senior Fatah official was seized briefly by Hamas militants. The unrest broke a relative lull after the sides declared a truce Sunday.

The two sides also accused each other of a series of kidnappings. In the most brazen abduction, Sufian Abu Zaydeh, a former Cabinet minister and top Fatah official, was seized by Hamas militants as he was driving home late yesterday in northern Gaza. He was released unharmed less than an hour later.

Hamas and Fatah have been locked in a power struggle since the January elections. Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party controls the presidency, while Hamas controls parliament and the Palestinian Cabinet, putting it in charge of most government functions.

The latest fighting erupted after the three young sons of a Fatah security officer were fatally shot last week, and worsened after Mr. Abbas’ announcement Saturday that he would call new elections to end the impasse.

At a press conference with Mr. Blair in Ramallah, Mr. Abbas said the violence would not deter him from proceeding with presidential and legislative elections, perhaps this summer — several years ahead of schedule.

“We want to examine the will of the people. Do they still trust those they have chosen?” he asked. Mr. Abbas was elected president in 2005 and Hamas won a separate parliamentary vote a year later.

An opinion poll published Sunday indicated that Mr. Abbas was in a tie with the most popular Hamas politician, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Mr. Blair was effusive in his praise of Mr. Abbas and urged the world to rally behind him.

“It is important for us, but I think for the whole of the international community, to work with people who want a genuine two-state solution” between Israel and the Palestinians, Mr. Blair said. “We want to work with people of moderation and tolerance who understand that in today’s world people of different faiths want to live together.”

After Mr. Blair’s meeting with Mr. Olmert, the Israeli leader said he hoped to have a summit with Mr. Abbas “very soon” and said officials from both sides were working on the preparations.

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