- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian president offered on Wednesday to visit the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for the first time in four years in a bid to help reunite the rival Palestinian governments. Hamas welcomed the offer.

Mahmoud Abbas also declared that he would not run for re-election in voting called for later this year.

On Tuesday, Gaza’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, had invited Abbas to visit following parallel rallies in Gaza and the West Bank urging the rival Palestinian leaderships to reunite.

The next day, the Palestinian leader announced that he would be prepared to make the trip within the coming week.

“I declare that I am ready to go to Gaza tomorrow so as to end the split and form a new government,” Abbas said in a speech before senior members of his Fatah Party.

He urged Haniyeh to make arrangements so he could arrive within the next two to four days, “so we can end this dark and dishonorable chapter of division.”

Hamas swiftly welcomed Abbas‘ offer. Spokesman Taher Nunu said the Hamas government was “considering the necessary arrangements for this visit.”

Muhammad Al Hindi, a leader of Islamic Jihad, Gaza’s other main militant faction, urged the two parties “to translate this good will into practical steps to end the political split and unify our people.”

Abbas has not been in Gaza since Hamas militants overran the territory during a five-day civil war in June 2007, leaving him in control of only the West Bank.

He has offered to go to Gaza before.

But the rallies Tuesday in both the West Bank and Gaza, led by young, disaffected Palestinians, combined with the wave of unrest sweeping through the region, has put heavy pressure on both leaders to resolve their differences.

The rift is a major obstacle to the Palestinians’ dreams to establish an independent state incorporating both territories. Paradoxically, perhaps, Abbas‘ outreach to Hamas might reflect his loss of faith in the U.S.-backed peace process with Israel. In the past, Abbas has shunned Hamas, which both the U.S. and Israel consider a terror group, in an effort to keep peacemaking alive.

Despite the outward signs of goodwill, the road to reconciliation promises to be rocky — and might lead nowhere. Past reconciliation efforts have failed, with neither side eager to relinquish the power it has.

Last month, Abbas‘ prime minister, Salam Fayyad, appealed to Hamas to join him in a united government, going so far as to propose that the group retain security control of Gaza until elections. Hamas rejected the offer.

Bringing Hamas back into the Palestinian Authority would likely imperil the huge amounts of American and European aid that the government depends on. That aid was withheld in the past when Hamas was part of the government because it refused to recognize Israel, renounce its violent campaign against the Jewish state or accept previous accords between Israel and the Palestinians. There is no sign Hamas would be willing to do any of those things now.

In a sign of the possible troubles that lie ahead, plainclothes Hamas security officials surrounded a building at the Fatah-affiliated Al Azhar University in Gaza City where some pro-reconciliation activists had gathered, the university said in a statement posted on its website. Some activists were beaten, and some were detained after trying to film the standoff on their mobile phones and ordered to return for questioning on Sunday, the statement said.

Abbas‘ unity plan includes a call for parliamentary and presidential elections within six months.

In his speech, Abbas told his Fatah allies that he would not run again — the first time he has said so explicitly. However, it is not at all clear that elections will be held.

In January, Abbas said he would hold elections by September but he later backpedaled to say elections could not be held until the West Bank and Gaza are reconciled.

Abbas‘ term expired a year ago, but he had consistently held off scheduling new elections because of turmoil inside Fatah and the growing strength of Hamas in the West Bank.


Dalia Nammari contributed to this report from Ramallah.

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