Divided over Israel, Palestinian groups call for unity
GAZA/RAMALLAH, West Bank
GAZA/RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Leaders of the feuding Palestinian factions, the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza and the secular Fatah government in the West Bank, urged reconciliation between the two former foes on Sunday despite diverging policies on Israel.
Fatah and Hamas have been at loggerheads since the latter pulled off a surprise win in 2006 parliamentary polls. A brief, bloody civil war a year later saw Hamas eject Fatah from Gaza, leaving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, to consolidate his power base in the West Bank.
The two groups are hoping to boost ties on the heels of an eight-day war with Israel last month, which buoyed Hamas, and a Fatah-led initiative at the United Nations General Assembly, that recognized a de facto Palestinian state.
But Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, visiting the Gaza Strip for the first time, struck a hard line against recognizing Israel or negotiating with it for a state on the lines pre-dating the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, just as Fatah's Abbas pledged himself to diplomacy and non-violence.
"Let bygones be bygones," Meshaal told an audience at Gaza's Islamic University. "Responsibility for Palestine is bigger than one faction alone ... Hamas cannot do without Fatah and Fatah cannot do without Hamas," he added.
Hamas and Fatah have sought unity before, but a succession of Arab-brokered plans have repeatedly run aground over issues such as the holding of new elections, releasing prisoners and the make-up of Palestinian security forces.
In the days before Meshaal's homecoming, Hamas eased curbs on Fatah partisans in Gaza.
However, the Hamas leader made no concrete proposals for reconciliation and stuck to the party line on Israel, saying he would never recognize the Jewish State even in its original 1948 borders, telling Fatah that "resistance" was the way forward.
Abbas on Sunday told Arab League diplomats that the two groups wanted to overcome their differences. "The reconciliation is dear to us and to the unity of our people, especially in the present time, when we are talking about a Palestinian state and about getting something new," he said, but stressed talks with Israel.
"If we put aside the negotiating table, the alternative would be war," Abbas told envoys at a meeting in Doha. "Are we ready for war? I say no."
Their fundamental differences aside, top Fatah leader Azzam al-Ahmed praised Meshaal's reconciliation push as "positive," but cautioned his remarks contained nothing new.
Meshaal and other top Hamas leaders have earlier mooted a long-term truce with Israel based on the 1967 lines, but say this does not mean they are ready to recognize Israel's right to exist in the rest of the territory.
Israel says it will only accept a demilitarized Palestinian state, and says Hamas's history of suicide bombings and rocket attacks on Israeli towns makes it a terrorist group -- a stance the United States and European Union endorse.
Israel criticized Abbas for not condemning Meshaal's comments and for seeking unity with the Islamist group.
"What is interesting is that (Abbas), of all people, did not condemn the (Hamas) words calling for Israel's destruction, just as previously he did not condemn the rockets fired at Israel (from Gaza)," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
(Editing by Stephen Powell)