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Hamas Rejects Abbas' Moves

The militant group ends cease-fire talks with the Palestinian Authority and decries his 'speech of capitulation' at the summit in Jordan.

June 07, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The militant Islamic group Hamas said Friday that it was breaking off cease-fire talks with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, a rebuff that appeared designed to undermine the new leader days after he agreed to implement a newly drawn "road map" to peace.

In making the announcement, Hamas leader Abdulaziz Rantisi decried what he called Abbas' "speech of capitulation" at a summit in the Jordanian port of Aqaba this week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush. In that speech, Abbas also committed Palestinians to eschewing violence.

The Hamas move came in the wake of comments by sidelined Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who a day earlier had derided the concessions called for in the peace plan, and particularly what he called a lack of good faith on the part of Sharon.

But Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and leaders of the Palestinian Authority issued statements late Friday suggesting that a truce was still possible and urging Palestinians to avoid internecine battles.

Nonetheless, the comments by Arafat, Rantisi and other Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process had all the earmarks of a challenge to Abbas, who is viewed as a moderate and has begun to replace Arafat on the international stage. Arafat was not invited to either Sharm el Sheik, the Egyptian resort where Arab leaders met this week to discuss Mideast issues, or to the Aqaba summit.

The comments also reflected widespread distress among Palestinians about the concessions made at Aqaba, which many saw as far too conciliatory to the Israelis and insufficiently clear about what the Palestinians can expect to see in return for their cooperation.

Many Palestinians felt that Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, did not distinguish between what they call resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian areas and terrorist acts against Israeli civilians. They also felt that while Abbas had pledged to end the violence, Sharon had given no guarantees about removing settlements from Palestinian areas.

"This is a setback for Abu Mazen's efforts," veteran Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat said, adding that he hoped other Arab countries, particularly Egypt, would intervene with Hamas and forestall an outright withdrawal from talks by the group.

The U.S.-backed peace plan requires that the Palestinians disarm the militant groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis in shootings and bombings during the 32 months of the most recent intifada against Israeli rule. It requires the Israelis to end massive restrictions on Palestinians' movement, cease demolitions of their homes and halt the growth of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory.

The Hamas statements came just hours after Israeli troops entered the West Bank town of Tulkarm and killed two Palestinian men who security forces said were plotting an attack on Israeli citizens. The two men were Hamas activists.

Analysts were divided about Hamas' intentions in announcing its pullout from the talks with Abbas, who has entered long negotiations aimed at coaxing the militants to hold their fire.

It was unclear whether part of the purpose was to remind Palestinians of the group's clout. There is little doubt that if the peace process moves forward, the militants will have to remodel themselves in order to have a role. In an effort at damage control, Abbas' negotiator with the hard-line Islamic groups all but apologized for his boss' comments late Friday.

"There was a clear problem in Abu Mazen's speech, and we do not know the conditions that prompted him to make that speech," Ziad abu Amr, liaison to the Islamic groups, said on Arab satellite TV.

"We hope this issue will be resolved," he said. "We hope that the Hamas decision will not be final because we have agreed between us that the only way to solve our internal differences is through dialogue."

At the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Friday that Bush was not discouraged by the move by Hamas, which Washington has labeled a terrorist organization.

"Those who pursue terror have made it very clear that they are enemies of peace, and Hamas is an enemy of peace," McClellan said. "We're going to continue to work with all parties to achieve peace."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the possible breakdown of talks between Hamas and Abbas did not indicate a loss of momentum in Bush's peacemaking efforts.

The United States, Boucher said, will work closely with Arab leaders "to ensure that groups like Hamas cannot conduct terrorist and violent action.... We all need to work to make sure that they cannot carry out ... this kind of violent action that they've taken in the past."

Boucher said the U.S. is "working on the specifics" of how to "use all means to cut off assistance, including arms and financing, to any terror group."

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