Vol. 5 Num 201 Thu. December 16, 2004  

Palestinian hardliners reject Abbas's call

Palestinian hardliners rejected Wednesday a call by new PLO chief Mahmud Abbas to lay down their weapons as a spiralling death toll in Gaza threatened to undermine his efforts to bring calm to the region.

Armed factions have so far rebuffed efforts by Abbas, the favourite to be elected Palestinian Authority president on Janaury 9, to institute a new ceasefire and firmly rejected his argument Wednesday that the use of weapons since the September 2000 start of the second intifada had been a mistake.

His comments in a newspaper interview received short shrift from both the radical Islamic movement Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad movement.

"Such declarations run counter to the consensus among our people over the legitimacy of the resistance," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP. "The problem is the Israeli occupation and not the resistance."

Mohammed al-Hindi, a leader of Jihad in its Gaza stronghold, said "the Palestinians need weapons of resistance against the Israeli occupation."

"It is illogical that we are killed without having any measure of legitimate self-defence," he told AFP.

In an interview published Tuesday with the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Abbas said "the use of weapons is harmful and it should stop."

Instead he urged Palestinians to "reject the occupation by popular and social means" and follow the example of the first intifada between 1987 and 1993 that was mostly confined to stone-throwing.

Abbas has previously criticised the "militarisation" of the struggle against occupation but it was his most clear-cut condemnation of the armed factions' tactics since taking the PLO helm after Yasser Arafat's death on November 11.

Abbas's willingness to upset the armed factions appears to reflect confidence over his election prospects and taps into a growing disillusionment among middle-class Palestinians over their plight after four years of violence.

It also won him praise from within Israel.

"It is a position that reflects leadership, worries about the Palestinian situation and is also a mark of responsibility," President Moshe Katsav told reporters. "It is an approach that deserves respect."

Abbas's comments were also warmly welcomed by the administration of US President George W. Bush, which refused to meet Arafat after accusing him of failing his people.

"Fighting terrorism and ending the violence is critical to moving forward on building the institutions for a viable (Palestinian) state to emerge," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.

Bush hosted Abbas at the White House during his brief stint as Palestinian premier last year.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who also boycotted Arafat, is another who is expected to reopen talks with Abbas after next month's election.

Sharon has indicated he is willing to coordinate next year's planned pullout of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip with the new Palestinian leadership -- but only if it cracks down on the armed factions.