Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Palestinians Put Calm Over West's Wishes

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) - Palestinians from the president on down are opting for unity over pleasing the West. The choice became increasingly clear after this week's Mideast summit. In the meeting, the U.S. and Israel warned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that they'd shun the emerging Hamas-Fatah unity government because it won't explicitly recognize the Jewish state.

Such a boycott translates into a loss of about $1 billion in foreign aid a year. Also, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office announced Tuesday that he would not hold peace talks with Abbas as long as Hamas - listed as a terror group by the U.S., the European Union and Israel - is part of the government, meaning Palestinian statehood would be put off indefinitely.

Despite such high stakes, a new poll indicated 94 percent of Palestinians support the Hamas-Fatah power sharing deal, reached this month in the Muslim holy city of Mecca. The agreement is widely seen as the only way to avert civil war, following months of Hamas-Fatah fighting that killed at least 130 people.

Halting the bloodshed has become a top priority for Palestinians, said Jamil Rabah, who heads Neareast Consulting, an independent polling company. "Palestinians would be willing to sacrifice for the sake of maintaining Palestinian brotherhood," he said.

By comparison, the threat of economic sanctions and freezing peace talks packs less of a punch.

An aid boycott has been in place for a year, targeting the Hamas government. Palestinians, while descending deeper into poverty, have been able to muddle through, in part because of increased Arab support. Also, many believe peace talks are far off in any case, despite renewed U.S. efforts to revive negotiations, including Monday's Jerusalem summit.

On the other hand, the Mecca deal is seen as something solid because it is underwritten by Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest country in the region. The agreement was able to halt the bloodiest round of Palestinian infighting, and the two sides have kept their word so far.

As agreed, the Hamas government resigned last week, turning into a caretaker Cabinet, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas has four weeks to put together a coalition with Abbas' Fatah.

In a survey by Rahab released Sunday, 76.5 percent of 806 respondents said they believed the Mecca agreement reduced the threat of civil war and 94 percent said they support the Mecca understandings. The poll had an margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

Abbas has told Olmert and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that he considers the Mecca agreement an achievement and that he won't be able to extract more concessions from Hamas - signaling that he won't go back on the unity deal, despite the U.S. and Israeli warnings.

Abbas heads next to Germany, Britain and France to try to win support for the unity deal, which does not directly address the international demands - recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and accepting previous peace accords.

Rice and Olmert have said repeatedly they'd reserve judgment until the unity government is formed - even though Abbas and others made it clear there won't be a change in platform. Abbas described his meeting with Rice and Olmert as "tense and difficult," but said it was not a failure.

Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib said he believed Abbas came out ahead, because he won assurances by the U.S. and Israel that they would continue to deal with him. "He has improved the internal situation and moved from the edge of civil war ... without sacrificing his international position," said Khatib, an independent and a former Cabinet minister.

While the choices are increasingly clear, many Palestinians hope they can have the best of both worlds - a national unity government and international aid.

Huda Mohammed, 45, who works at a blood bank in Gaza City, said she was pleased with the Mecca agreement because it stopped the fighting.

She would also like Hamas to compromise more, "so we can breathe a little," but said the U.S. shouldn't push too hard, for fear of triggering more unrest.

And Osama al-Najjar, head of the union of health workers in the West Bank, said the Palestinians should opt for unity - even at the price of an international boycott that has meant months without salaries for his members.

"Kneeling to the American and Israeli demands has given us nothing before," he said.



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