March 16, 2011 / 12:53 PM / 9 years ago

Abbas says willing to go to Gaza to end split

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday he was ready to go to the Gaza Strip immediately to try to end divisions with the Hamas Islamist movement that controls the territory.

In a speech in Gaza Tuesday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh invited Abbas to the enclave, which the West Bank-based president has not visited since its seizure by the Islamist group in 2007, to launch a “comprehensive dialogue” on unity.

“I am ready to go to Gaza tomorrow in order to end the division,” Abbas, without mentioning Haniyeh’s invitation, said in an address to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central council.

Abbas said he hoped to form “a government of independent national figures and to agree to parliamentary and presidential elections ... within six months or as soon as possible.”

Welcoming what he called Abbas’s response to Haniyeh’s initiative, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said “special arrangements for the visit will be looked into.”

In a statement, Hamas said: “Haniyeh is discussing with his advisers, members of his government, Hamas leaders and other factions a mechanism to welcome the President and end division.”

The use of the term “president” in the statement appeared to mark a softening in Hamas’s attitude toward Abbas.

Hamas contends Abbas’s presidency is no longer legitimate because no Palestinian elections have been held since 2006. In his speech, Abbas also appeared to take a more conciliatory tone toward Hamas, saying he recognized his own term had expired — and also that of parliament, where Hamas has a majority.

Over the past several years, Egypt has tried unsuccessfully to bridge gaps between Abbas’s Fatah movement, which has pursued talks with Israel on Palestinian statehood, and Hamas, which has spurned Western calls to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

Tuesday, tens of thousands of Palestinians flocked to a Gaza rally for unity in response to a call on Facebook by youth groups who said they were inspired by revolts against autocratic rule in the Arab world.

Witnesses said Hamas security men in plain clothes attacked demonstrators as the event wound down, injuring at least a dozen people. Hamas denied the allegation, saying the rally broke up following clashes between different youth groups.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Mohammed Assadi; Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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