Deadly internal fighting will not escalate into a full-blown civil war, Hamas' prime minister pledged yesterday, prior to high-level meetings of rival Palestinian factions aimed at ending spiraling violence in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of the rival Fatah Party, said after talks with Hamas officials that all sides should work to avoid further tensions.
The talks came after two weeks of deadly clashes between Hamas militiamen and gunmen linked to Abbas' Fatah movement. The fighting has been fueled by a bitter power struggle between the Hamas government and Abbas. On Monday, in the heaviest battle yet, an aide to the Jordanian ambassador was killed in crossfire and 11 people were wounded in Gaza City.
In Gaza City, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, leaders of Fatah and heads of smaller Palestinian factions met yesterday to try to end the internal fighting.
Tensions have been soaring in Gaza since the Hamas government last week deployed a 3,000-strong force of Hamas militants. The new militia poses a challenge to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian security forces. Armed men from both camps have been patrolling the streets in large numbers, often taking up positions close to each other.
Haniyeh said yesterday he was certain the fighting would not spin out of control.
"We are concerned about ending this crisis. The term civil war does not exist in our dictionary," Haniyeh said at the start of the meeting. "I assure our people that we can overcome these incidents. These incidents have taken place before and we have overcome the similar incidents."
After Abbas led a similar meeting of all factions in the West Bank city of Ramallah, he said he was hopeful that a round of "national dialogue" talks slated to begin tomorrow could help the sides iron out their differences.
"Each one of us feels the national cause is in danger so we have to work to make sure this dialogue succeeds," Abbas told reporters.
Some in Fatah are confident they will emerge victorious and be returned to power, or at least cause enough chaos to bring down Hamas. Hamas officials believe the new force is the only way they can assert power and gain respect after Abbas seized control of the Palestinian security branches.
The Hamas prime minister, meanwhile, for the first time addressed an Israeli audience, giving an interview to the Haaretz daily.
Hamas has rejected Western demands that it recognize Israel and renounce violence.
Haniyeh reiterated his demand that Israel withdraw to boundaries it has already rejected, offering in return a long-term ceasefire that falls well short of a formal peace treaty.
"If Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, peace will prevail and we will implement a ceasefire for many years," he told Haaretz.
"Our government is prepared to maintain a long-term ceasefire with Israel," he said.
also see story:
West Bank Hamas leader surrenders to Israeli soldiers