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Friday, January 27, 2006

After Crushing Defeat to Hamas, Fatah Militants Protest in Gaza - New York Times

After Crushing Defeat to Hamas, Fatah Militants Protest in Gaza - New York TimesJanuary 27, 2006
After Crushing Defeat to Hamas, Fatah Militants Protest in Gaza
By STEVEN ERLANGER
and GREG MYRE

GAZA, Jan. 27 -- In the wake of a crushing electoral defeat for the ruling Fatah party, young militants from the group staged an angry demonstration Friday evening and fired guns in the air outside the home of the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who was not present at the time.

In contrast, the Islamic faction Hamas, which scored a resounding victory in Wednesday's parliamentary poll, staged celebratory rallies while group leaders said they were ready to meet Mr. Abbas for talks on forming the new government.

In the two days since the vote, Palestinian political tensions have been on display, though they have not spun out of control.

Several hundred protesters from Mr. Abbas's own Fatah party marched in the street outside his home in Gaza City. Gunmen fired automatic rifles into the air and the crowd chanted, "Go away Abu Mazen, go away Abu Mazen," referring to Mr. Abbas as he is commonly known.

Mr. Abbas was in the West Bank at the time of Friday's incident. Still, it reflected the internal Fatah friction between the old guard and the young militants, who may be even less tolerant of Mr. Abbas's leadership in the wake of Fatah's election defeat.

The gunmen also marched into the courtyard of the nearby parliament building and set several cars ablaze.

Muhammad Dahlan, one of the best-known Fatah leaders of the younger generation, and a former security chief, arrived at the scene and urged the Fatah men to disperse.

In the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis, Fatah and Hamas supporters clashed with stones and guns, leaving three people wounded, according to witnesses and medical workers.

Throughout Gaza, thousands of Hamas supporters wearing green baseball caps and waving green flags took part in noisy, but peaceful rallies after midday prayers.

Mr. Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority a year ago, and is post is not affected by the election. However, he will be greatly weakened politically with Hamas in charge of the government.

Ismail Haniya, a senior Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, said his group was seeking to meet Mr. Abbas as soon as Sunday to begin talks on a new government.

With 76 of the 132 seats in parliament, Hamas has a solid majority on its own and does not need any partners. But the group says it wants to work with other factions, including Fatah.

"It will not be just our government," Dr. Mahmoud Zahar, another top Hamas leader, said Friday as he emerged from midday prayers at the mosque across the street from his Gaza City home. "We will work with Fatah and independents and other factions to make it a national government."

Hamas should be able to assemble a government in two to three weeks, according to Dr. Zahar.

But several leaders in Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian political life for four decades, have said they would prefer to be in the opposition and rebuild the party rather than join with Hamas.

Hamas participated in parliamentary elections for the first time on Wednesday, and has no experience in the Palestinian Authority.

Until now, Hamas has refused to take part in the Palestinian government because it emerged from a 1993 interim peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which Hamas rejected.

Hamas still does not recognize Israel, and says it will not change its charter calling for Israel's destruction.

"Why are we going to recognize Israel?" Dr. Zahar said. "Is Israel going to recognize the right of return of Palestinian refugees? Is Israel going to recognize Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital?"

But Dr. Zahar and other leaders say that Hamas would not rule out limited contacts with Israel under certain circumstances.

"If Israel has anything to bring to the Palestinian people, we will consider this," he said. "But we are not going to give anything for free."

Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and other senior government officials say Israel will not deal with Hamas. Israel, along with the United States and the European Union, label Hamas a terrorist organization.

The financially strapped Palestinian Authority receives much of its money from the United States and Europe, as well as tax money that is collected by Israel and passed on to the Palestinians. Hamas's ascension to power has raised questions about whether the flow of funds might be slowed or cut, but Hamas professes not to worry.

Hamas says it will seek additional assistance and to develop business ties in the Arab and Muslim world. The group also says that much of the past aid wasted due to endemic corruption in the

Palestinian Authority.

"All the money from Europe and American went into the pockets of corrupt men," Mr. Zahar said, who cited Palestinian security chiefs as a leading example. "The leaders of these services became multi-millionaires. We are going to reform these services. This is our mission."

As Hamas prepares to form a government, the new cabinet and the new legislature will face great challenges in simply getting members together in the same place.

In Wednesday's election, 31 Palestinian candidates were in prisons, according to the Central Elections Commission. Fifteen of them accounting for more than 10 percent of the new parliament won seats, the Jerusalem Post reported Friday. Israel has said that the election will not bring any change in their status or any reduction in their sentences.

In addition, other election winners are wanted by Israel for suspected involvement in violence. Most are in semi-seclusion, and fear arrest if they try to travel to Ramallah, the site of the Palestinian parliament in the West Bank.

The Palestinians also have a parliament building in Gaza City, but since Israeli troops left Gaza last summer, Palestinians in Gaza face no restrictions when moving inside the territory.

In the past few years, the Palestinian parliament has held numerous sessions with a video conference connecting West Bank lawmakers in Ramallah and the Gaza legislators in Gaza City.

The new Palestinian cabinet could face a similar problem. Most senior Hamas leaders are in Gaza, though the cabinet is sure to have ministers from the West Bank as well.

Israel has generally allowed Palestinian cabinet ministers to travel between Gaza and the West Bank. But Israel appears unlikely to do the same with government ministers from Hamas.

Steven Erlanger reported from Ramallah for this article, and Greg Myre from Gaza. John O'Neil contributed reportingfrom New York.

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