Saturday, June 16, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appointed former World Bank official Salam Fayyad to head an emergency government after militants from the rival Hamas faction routed his Fatah forces and seized control of the Gaza Strip enclave.

The U.S. government and other Western powers lined up behind Mr. Fayyad in hopes of averting a full-scale Palestinian civil war and staving off a victory by the Islamist Hamas movement.

But Hamas leaders in Gaza called on Mr. Fayyad, who served as finance minister in unity government which Mr. Abbas dissolved Thursday, to turn down the nomination, characterizing it as a coup against the legitimacy of the popularly elected Islamist-run government that took office in March 2006.

Khaled Meshal, the Hamas movement’s political leader based in Damascus, tried to sound a conciliatory note toward Mr. Abbas, calling on the Arab League to broker a new power-sharing agreement between Hamas and the secular Fatah party.

“What happened in Gaza was a necessary step. The people were suffering from chaos and lack of security and this treatment was needed,” Mr. Meshal said. “The lack of security drove the crisis toward explosion.”

In the West Bank yesterday, Hamas fighters and civilians ransacked the presidential compound, taking cars, weapons, appliances and office fixtures.

One masked Hamas gunmen pretended to make a phone call from Mr. Abbas’s office to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, joking, “Hello, Condoleezza Rice? You have to deal with me now.”

Meanwhile, dozens of Fatah political refugees from Gaza — fearing for their lives — gathered at a Ramallah hotel to console themselves on their stunning military defeat this week.

Arab League foreign ministers held an emergency session in Cairo to discuss the Islamist victory. Egypt called on Palestinians to rally behind Mr. Abbas, while condemning Hamas for undermining the Palestinian unity government.

While calling on the sides to revive the Saudi-brokered unity agreement, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said the latest fighting between the two rival groups hurt the Palestinian struggle for an independent state.

“Today, the Palestinians have come close to putting by themselves the last nail in the coffin of the Palestinian cause,” he told other Arab foreign ministers in closed session.

Mr. Abbas also got crucial support from the international community as the so-called Quartet of Middle East peace mediators — the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations — issued a “clear message of support” for the Palestinian president.

The Bush administration and the European Union both hinted that they were considering easing an international aid embargo imposed on the Hamas-led unity government because Mr. Fayyad had taken over.

“We’re going to take a look, given the changed circumstances with the new Palestinian government, at what we might do,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Officials in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office, meanwhile, said that Mr. Olmert was considering unfreezing hundreds of millions of dollars in customs revenue collected on behalf of the Palestinians that has been held in escrow in order to pressure the Hamas-led government.

Though Israel sealed its crossings with Gaza, an exception was made for Fatah security chiefs and political leaders who sought refuge in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Fatah still has firm control. The brutal public execution of Fatah officials by Hamas gunmen this week shocked Palestinians there.

At Ramallah’s Grand Park Hotel, which is run by the Palestinian Authority, somber Fatah officials embraced and consoled one another while resting on couches in the lobby. Outside the main entrance to the hotel, plainclothes and uniformed security officers in flak jackets stood guard with machine guns.

“I am a target of Hamas,” said Wael Abu Elfahem, a Fatah youth worker from the Jabaliyah refugee neighborhood. “Our life was in danger, and is still in danger.”

After days holed up at home while fighting raged in the streets, Mr. Elfahem said he was able to slip out of Jabaliya when Hamas gunmen abandoned their checkpoints to take part in the looting of the just-captured Fatah security headquarters.

Mr. Elfahem said he blamed Mr. Abbas for the rout in Gaza, faulting him for not going on the offensive against Hamas-run militias.

Across the table sat Hussam Fares, a Fatah leader from a refugee camp in central Gaza who also thought himself a wanted man by Hamas forces in Gaza. Mr. Fares, 32, said he was forced to leave his pregnant wife behind in Gaza because he couldn’t obtain an additional travel authorization from Israel.

He said, “After arriving in Ramallah, she told me, ‘Don’t go back to Gaza. Try to bring me to Ramallah, but don’t come back.’”

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