Sat, May 24, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Abbas under pressure to harness Hamas

STUMBLING BLOCK The Palestinian prime minister has taken his first shaky steps on the road to peace, but his fellow travelers are being less than cooperative


Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who is under growing international pressure to rein in militants, summoned leaders of the Islamic group Hamas to his office and asked them to halt attacks on Israelis.

However, Hamas said Thursday that at best, it is willing to consider a partial truce, and only on condition that Israel stop hunting militants. Israel has rejected such a proposal in the past and said again Thursday it was unacceptable.

The disagreement between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over how to deal with the militias is a major obstacle to getting started on the US-backed "road map" to Mideast peace.

Abbas wants to persuade militants to lay down their arms, while Sharon insists they be disarmed and arrested.

Despite the obstacles, Sharon for the first time signaled qualified support Wednesday for the peace plan, an Israeli official said late Thursday, speaking on condition of anonymity in Washington. He told the White House through an emissary that he would go along with it as long as the Bush administration took his concerns into account.

There were signs Thursday that Abbas and Sharon would meet separately or perhaps together in the coming days with US President George W. Bush to discuss the peace plan, which calls for an immediate end to violence and setting up a Palestinian state by 2005.

Bush is traveling to Europe next week and possibly stopping in the Middle East.

In Washington, Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayad met Wednesday afternoon with Bush. Fayad, a former IMF official, is one of the most respected members of the Palestinian Cabinet.

The Palestinians have accepted the road map, while Israel has expressed major reservations. Sharon has said he would not give a response until he has discussed his objections with Bush.

In the first phase of the peace plan, Palestinian security forces would rein in militias that have carried out scores of shootings and bombings in the past 32 months of fighting. Israel would withdraw from Palestinian towns and stop expanding Jewish settlements.

Abbas is trying to avoid using force against the militias, in part because he may not have enough of a power base to risk a full-fledged confrontation. Hamas has grown in popularity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where many Palestinians are embittered by Israeli military strikes and travel bans that cause much hardship.

Abbas' talks with Hamas leaders at his Gaza City office Thursday marked his first visible effort to help end attacks on Israeli civilians.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Ziad Abu Amr, who participated in the meeting, said using force against the militants "would be counterproductive."

Earlier this week, Hamas and other Palestinian militias carried out five suicide bombings that killed 12 Israelis and wounded dozens. Abu Amr said the militants apparently unleashed these attacks, in part, because they wanted to begin truce talks from a position of strength.

Hamas officials told Abbas said they were ready for a partial truce -- halting attacks on civilians in Israel, but continuing to target Israeli settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- but only if Israel stopped hunting its members.

Sharon told Abbas in their weekend summit that a suspension of attacks was insufficient. Sharon insisted Palestinians disarm the militias and arrest their leaders, saying a mere suspension of violence would allow the militants -- weakened by Israeli military strikes -- to regroup and plan more attacks.

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