Abbas assails Hamas "assassins", talks to Israel

RAMALLAH, West Bank Wed Jun 20, 2007 7:39pm EDT

1 of 14. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting with Fatah leaders in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 20, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad

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RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in his first speech since Islamist Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, said on Wednesday there could be no reconciliation with a group he described as "traitors".

Ending a diplomatic embargo imposed after Hamas swept Palestinian elections last year, Israel's foreign minister held talks with the prime minister in the cabinet Abbas formed to replace the Hamas-led government and restore Western donor aid.

Hamas faces deepening isolation in the Gaza Strip and has called for rapprochement with Abbas. But the president, whose break with Hamas was welcomed abroad, rebuffed those overtures in a rare display of public recrimination.

"No dialogue with those killers," Abbas told the executive of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization, in a speech aimed at rallying support for his decision to rule by decree.

"I address our people in Gaza. I tell them that the plans of these putschist assassins have no future," Abbas said in a televised address peppered with Koranic quotes and a charge -- denied by Hamas -- that Gazan "traitors" tried to kill him.

Hamas has rejected Abbas's new government and regards itself as head of the coalition government formed in March. Thousands of Palestinians rallied in Gaza's streets after Abbas's speech, burning the president in effigy to chants of "U.S. puppet!"

Sami Abu Zuhri of Hamas accused Abbas of being part of "an Israeli, American and regional plot to split the Gaza Strip from the West Bank" and thus break up the Palestinian polity.

U.S. President George W. Bush, hosting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Washington on Tuesday, endorsed Abbas, who leads the secular Fatah faction, as "president of all the Palestinians".

After 15 months in which Israel shunned the Hamas-led cabinet, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's spokesman said she spoke with Abbas's new prime minister, Salam Fayyad, for a "beginning of a dialogue between the two governments".

The United States and European Union have pledged to lift an economic and diplomatic embargo imposed on the Palestinian Authority in March 2006 when Hamas rose to power and refused to drop its refusal to recognize Israel. Israel is trying to ensure that money does not reach the Hamas administration in Gaza.

MANDATES, MONEY

Bush and Olmert reaffirmed their commitment to the vision of a Palestinian state but offered no concrete plan to achieve a negotiated deal with Abbas, whose mandate is now effectively limited to the occupied West Bank, 45 km (30 miles) from Gaza.

As an initial gesture, Olmert has promised to release Palestinian tax revenues withheld for more than a year. He said after the White House talks he would ask his cabinet at its next meeting on Sunday to approve the release of the funds.

The Israeli leader said he wanted to make "every possible effort to cooperate with Abbas, but he stopped short of bowing to the Palestinian president's push for full-scale peace talks, and Bush showed no sign of pressuring him to do so".

In his speech, Abbas said he would not accept "any Israeli attempt to take advantage of this act perpetrated by the coup militias ... to pave the way for the separation of Gaza and the West Bank".

Palestinians, he said, would "restore unity and the homeland" in a "state based on the pillars of democracy".

Abbas also suggested that Palestinian election law, which worked in Hamas's favor last year by allowing lawmakers to be chosen from among individual candidates as well as faction lists, be changed to a pure representative system.

Israeli forces, having mostly sat out last week's clashes in which Hamas overran Fatah strongholds, struck in central Gaza, killing four Palestinian gunmen. An Israeli soldier was wounded.

Israel also carried out air strikes against rocket launch sites after a rocket fired from Gaza hit Israel. Later salvoes by Islamic Jihad militants lightly wounded two Israelis.

Israel also evacuated around 100 Palestinians fleeing Hamas Islamists in Gaza to Egypt on Wednesday, witnesses and military officials said, after they spent days in a border terminal.

Senior Palestinian officials said Abbas and Olmert might meet next week in Egypt but an aide to the Israeli prime minister said no date had been set for any meeting.

(Additional reporting by Wafa Amr and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza)

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