Palestinian reconciliation pact may be on hold again

Thu Oct 8, 2009 8:46am EDT

GAZA, Oct 8 ( Reuters) - Palestinians of the Islamist Hamas faction ruling the Gaza Strip have asked Egypt to postpone a meeting with their rivals of the Western-backed Fatah movement when they were expected to sign a reconciliation pact.

It was supposed to take place in Cairo on October 24-26, with a signing ceremony to cap over a year-long diplomatic slog by Egyptian mediators working to close the split in the Palestinian national movement.

But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, is under political fire from Palestinians for agreeing last Friday to shelve a United Nations war crimes report by judge Richard Goldstone criticizing Israel's Gaza offensive.

"Hamas told Egypt that the popular shock caused by the Palestinian Authority's delaying of the vote on the Goldstone report was a blow to their efforts and sabotaged the atmosphere for such an event," a Palestinian official close to the talks told Reuters in Gaza.

The U.N. Human Rights Council had been due to vote on Friday on a resolution condemning Israel's failure to cooperate with the Gaza inquiry and forwarding the report to the Security Council. But action was postponed until March after U.S. pressure aimed at getting the peace process back on track.

Jibril Rajoub, a member of Fatah's central committee, said any postponement in the reconciliation talks "would be a mistake." Rajoub accused Hamas of using the dispute over the Gaza report as a pretext to torpedo a unity deal.

A crowd in Gaza threw shoes at a defaced portrait of Abbas on Wednesday and called him a traitor. But Fatah loyalists accused Hamas of cynically fanning popular feeling against its top political opponent.

HAMAS UP, FATAH DOWN

Fatah is now struggling to correct what aides to Abbas have admitted was a diplomatic mistake. The president has promised to address Palestinians to explain what went wrong and official sources have hinted that heads may roll.

Hamas, by contrast, is enjoying a wave of popularity for securing the release of 20 female prisoners from Israel last week in return for a video showing that the Israeli soldier it has held captive for three years is alive and well.

Although the meeting in Cairo was not expected to heal political rifts immediately, it would outline steps to restoring unity between Abbas's Fatah movement, which dominates the West Bank, and Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers.

"The problem is not in the Egyptian paper (for reconciliation), the problem is in the shameful Fatah position over the Goldstone report," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said on Wednesday.

Gaza-born senior Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, who is now based in the West Bank, accused Hamas of exploiting the Goldstone case "to destroy the Palestinian political system and to destroy Palestinian legitimacy through attacking Abu Mazen (Abbas)."

"We, in Fatah, have admitted that postponing the vote was a mistake. But the question is to rectify this, and it's not through accusations of treason," Dahlan told Reuters.

Abu Zuhri said Dahlan's comments proved Fatah was entirely to blame over the delaying of the vote on the U.N. report.

"We do not call it a mistake. We call it a deliberate acquittal of the (Israeli) occupation for war crimes they committed," Abu Zuhri said.

Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah