January 30, 2008 / 8:18 AM / 11 years ago

Abbas sets conditions for Gaza talks with Hamas

CAIRO (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected demands on Wednesday by Hamas rivals for control of the breached Gaza-Egypt border and told the Islamist group to “end its coup in Gaza”.

Palestinians walk past Egyptian soldiers near a destroyed section of the border wall between Gaza and Egypt as they return to Gaza January 30, 2008. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday rejected demands by Hamas for control of the Gaza border and told the Islamist group to "end its coup in Gaza". REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June after routing Abbas’s more secular Fatah forces, blasted open the Egyptian border last week in defiance of an Israeli-led blockade, letting Gazans pour into Egypt to stock up on goods.

Abbas, who met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other officials in crisis talks in Egypt on restoring order at the frontier, has already won U.S., European and Arab backing to take control of the Rafah crossing, to the exclusion of Hamas.

“Hamas has to end its coup in Gaza, accept all international obligations, and accept holding early elections. After that, our hearts are open for any dialogue,” Abbas told a news conference in which he referred to Hamas as an “illegitimate” party.

“We do not accept any new (border) agreements,” he said. The Palestinian Authority was willing to take control of crossings only according to an international deal in place before Hamas took control of the coastal strip, he said.

It is unclear how Abbas, the Fatah leader whose authority has been limited to the Israeli-occupied West Bank since June, would be able to exert control over Rafah given opposition from Hamas, whose forces have command on the ground.

Shunned by the West for refusing to renounce violence against Israel after winning Palestinian elections two years ago, Hamas signaled it could prevent Egypt from re-sealing the border unless its own authority there was recognized.

“Talking about a partial role contradicts reality,” senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar said as he crossed through the Rafah border terminal into Egypt to take part in talks with Egypt on the future of the border.

“The reality is that there is a legitimate government. We will not give up our legitimacy to anybody,” he said.

EGYPT COULD TAKE BORDER STEPS

Hamas sought on Wednesday to make the case that it could manage the Rafah crossing itself. It allowed television cameras and reporters into the terminal to watch Zahar and other Hamas leaders have their passports stamped by Hamas border guards.

Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal arrived in Cairo on Wednesday night to hold talks with Egyptian officials the next day, a Hamas official said.

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the Islamist group, said: “Abbas’s comments that Hamas was not a legitimate party reflect his intentions to foil the Cairo meetings.”

In Damascus, Hamas politburo member Izzat al-Rishq played down chances that Meshaal would meet Mubarak, who described Hamas’s Gaza takeover as a “coup against legitimacy”.

Israel signaled on Tuesday it would not stand in the way of Abbas taking control of Gaza’s border with Egypt, but officials expressed doubt that Abbas’s forces could stand up to Hamas’s.

Slideshow (3 Images)

One Egyptian state-run newspaper said Cairo planned to close the border on Thursday and the flagship al-Ahram newspaper said the last opportunity for Gazans to return home would be at the start of next week.

Israel’s high court backed the Israeli government’s decision to reduce fuel supplies to Gaza, rejecting a petition by human rights groups that argued the reductions risked creating a humanitarian crisis.

Under heavy international pressure to ease its cordon, Israel has allowed European-funded fuel to reach Gaza’s main power plant, but the main U.N. aid agency said it was running out of meat for nearly 1 million Palestinians in Gaza.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Khaled Oweis in Damascus and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah; Writing by Adam Entous in Jerusalem and Cynthia Johnston in Cairo; editing by Robert Woodward

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