West Bank Palestinians appeal for unity with Gaza

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Echoing popular sentiment, prominent Palestinian politicians and intellectuals appealed to the rival Hamas and Fatah factions Tuesday to heal rifts that have jeopardized the quest for statehood.

More than a dozen leading figures, including members of both factions, issued a petition in the West Bank which they hope thousands will sign both there and in the Gaza Strip, demanding an end to the political separation between the two territories.

Islamist Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007 in a brief but bloody civil war with Fatah, a secular group loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The petition expressed the fear that the rift could become permanent, and that the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza would weaken the drive for the creation of a Palestinian state in both territories and the end of Israel’s West Bank occupation.

Israeli forces killed some 1,300 Palestinians in their 22-day Gaza offensive that ended 10 days ago, and 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians were killed.

“The aggression on our people in Gaza is an assault on all the Palestinian people, it aims to break the will of all our people, driving it to live in division and capitulating to the liquidation of our national cause,” the petition said.

“Political and geographical division is destructive to the Palestinian cause,” one of the signatories, Abdel-Rahim Mallouh, a member of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), told reporters in Ramallah.

Hamas and Israel declared separate ceasefires and are negotiating through Egyptian mediators on a longer-term truce. Hamas wants Israel to end its blockade. Israel wants guarantees that Hamas will not again fire rockets at Israeli towns.

Egypt has invited representatives of all Palestinian factions to meet in Cairo next month to discuss reunification but it is not clear if Hamas and Fatah, strongly entrenched in their positions, will compromise.

The divisions have weakened Abbas’ peace drive with Israel.

The new U.S. Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is due to hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders Wednesday and Thursday to try to push forward the troubled peace process.

Ordinary West Bank Palestinians took to the streets during Israel’s Gaza offensive, both to protest against the fighting and to condemn the factional divisions among the Palestinians.

Many said they were critical both of Fatah because of its ineffective leadership and of Hamas for trying to create a separate entity in Gaza, but no viable alternative has emerged.

“Our message is enough,” said Islamist figure Nasser Shaer, a former minister in a Hamas-led government. “The division is being reinforced and we fear it will become ... permanent.”

Editing by Tim Pearce