- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared yesterday that talks on forming a unity government with Hamas are dead, and visiting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the focus now should be on improving humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian territories.

Mr. Abbas said after meeting with Miss Rice at his Ramallah office that he might dissolve the Hamas-led government, using his “constitutional powers” as Palestinian Authority president, and might call for new elections.

He said he also would consider other options to avoid civil war, a growing threat after two days of heavy fighting between Hamas and Fatah forces in the Gaza Strip this week.

Nabil Amr, a top aide to Mr. Abbas, told The Washington Times on Tuesday that the factions were “centimeters” away from civil war. “It could happen at any time.”

Miss Rice, after meeting with Mr. Abbas, stressed the need to find ways to help the Palestinian people, who are running short of food, medicine and other necessities in the Gaza Strip after more than six months without paychecks and a partial closing of their borders.

“I’ve been discussing with the president ways that we might be able to better address some of the great needs that are there with the Palestinian people,” Miss Rice said. She did not explain who would supply those resources, and U.S. officials traveling with her said she did not offer any American aid.

The United States and the European Union cut off assistance to the Palestinian government after a January election that brought Hamas to power, saying it would not be restored until the new Palestinian government recognized Israel, renounced violence and agreed to honor past agreements with Israel.

Hamas has refused to meet the conditions, but Miss Rice said Washington has “found a way to get humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people by reprogramming some of our assistance for the Palestinians.”

She said she would ask Israel to make “movement and access” easier for the Palestinians and “to make possible a life … that is not subject to the kind of daily humiliations that we know have been associated with the occupation.”

However, she did not address a call by members of the Middle East Quartet, meeting in New York last week, for Israel to release Palestinian customs duties that have been withheld since early this year. The Quartet consists of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

“It’s still important” that people and goods be able to move through the Karni crossing into the Gaza Strip, Miss Rice said, and that “there be at least some openings” at the Rafah crossing, near where an Israeli soldier was kidnapped in June. A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said later that Israel would soon open Karni, the main commercial crossing into Gaza.

Israel has kept Gaza crossing points closed most of the time since the June abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old tank gunner who is still being held.

“I’m glad to know that [Rafah] was opened a couple of times during Ramadan,” the secretary said. “I will, of course, see what I can do to make sure that some of those crossings are indeed open longer and more frequently so that economic activity can return.”

Mr. Abbas expressed frustration with Hamas’ refusal to compromise in talks on a unity government. He said in New York last month that he had reached a tentative deal with Hamas for a government that would recognize Israel, but the deal quickly collapsed.

The cash-strapped Hamas Cabinet has been unable to pay salaries and address many of the Palestinians’ daily needs. In the worst internal violence in the territories, 12 Palestinians have been killed in fighting between rival factions in the past week.

A senior State Department official said Mr. Abbas’ guard “did some of the fighting” with Hamas.

“The dialogue now does not exist,” Mr. Abbas said in reference to the talks with Hamas on forming a unity government. “If this doesn’t happen in the near future, all options are open. … But the only option I reject is civil war.”

He did not specifically call for new elections but did not rule them out when asked about them at the press conference with Miss Rice. Before the meeting with her, he said he would use his “constitutional powers.”

Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. officials were not certain whether Palestinian law permits Mr. Abbas to dissolve the government and call elections. Most appear to agree that he can do the former, but there were questions about the latter.

Limits on the Palestinian Authority president’s powers were imposed under U.S. pressure while Yasser Arafat occupied the office.

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