By Robin Pomeroy
RAMALLAH, West Bank, July 10 (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi urged Palestinians on Tuesday not to allow a bitter split between the Fatah and Hamas factions to derail their quest for an independent state.
On a two-day visit to the region, Prodi renewed his support for Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, who has called last month’s takeover of the Gaza strip by Islamist Hamas militants a "bloody coup".
"The end of the national unity government and the territorial split must not undermine the determination to promote peace talks based on the two-state solution," Prodi said after talks with Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
"The Palestinian people must remain united in the shared aim of establishing an independent, democratic and vibrant Palestinian state which can live in peace and security with Israel," Prodi said at the news conference.
Abbas reiterated his refusal to hold talks with Islamist Hamas. "The coup-makers must put everything back as it was, until then there can be no dialogue," he said.
The Palestinian leader also accused Hamas of giving al Qaeda militants a foothold in Gaza. "Through Hamas, al Qaeda is entering the Gaza Strip," Abbas told Italian state television channel RAI ahead of his talks with Prodi.
The European Union is following a policy of isolating Hamas, something Prodi gave no indication would change.
But the Italian leader underlined concerns about living conditions of the people in Gaza and stressed the need to continue to supply humanitarian aid.
"The big challenge is getting (economic) development back," said Prodi, saying restoring freedom of movement to people in the area was essential. Thousands of Palestinians are blocked on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing from entering Gaza.
Prodi repeated it was no time to send international forces into Gaza, something favoured by both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but opposed by Hamas which has said it would attack such troops like other "occupation forces".
Olmert told RAI television the Palestinians needed to overcome the political split between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the occupied West Bank, controlled by Abbas, in order to reach a viable two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"We are not stupid. We do not want to separate Gaza from the West Bank. We know that a million and a half Palestinians live in the Strip. How can they be separated from the others?"
On his final stop, Prodi visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, believed to be the site of Jesus’s birth.
Asked whether his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders had given him any hope for peace, he said: "If you look at the past, there is little hope. If you have the courage to look to the future, there is hope."