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U.S.-allied Arab states back Abbas in Hamas row

ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Foreign ministers of U.S.-allied Arab states meeting in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday said they were seeking to consolidate Arab support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his row with Islamist group Hamas.

“Our aim is to boost Arab solidarity, to mobilize our backing for the Arab peace initiative and to bolster support for the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas,” the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan told Reuters.

Sheikh Abdullah said ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen and the Palestinian Authority also backed the Palestine Liberation Organization as the “sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” after Hamas called for it to be replaced by a body less dominated by allies of Abbas.

The meeting comes on a day when a rocket fired from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip struck the Israeli port city of Ashkelon and Israeli aircraft bombed smuggling tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt.

Gaza is still reeling from a 22-day Israeli offensive that the Jewish state said was aimed at ending rocket salvoes. The Gaza assault ended with January 18 ceasefire declarations but no agreement for a lasting truce.

Egypt has been trying with U.S. backing to broker a long-term truce which would end Palestinian arms smuggling and also lead to reopening the coastal enclave’s border crossings, one of Hamas’s key demands.

Arab ministers meeting in Abu Dhabi backed Egypt’s efforts and were preparing the ground for a donors conference in Egypt on February 22 aimed at helping the Palestinian people, with the full involvement of the Palestinian Authority.

“The ministers who met here today were all in support of the Egyptian initiative and Cairo’s effort to achieve calm between the Palestinian and the Israeli sides,” Sheikh Abdullah said.

Responding to Egypt’s mediation, Hamas said on Monday it would be prepared to halt hostilities for a year if a deal could be reached on lifting Israel’s crippling blockade of Gaza.

A Hamas delegation planned to meet Egyptian mediators in Cairo on Tuesday to deliver a response to the truce proposals.

Hamas, which beat Abbas’s secular Fatah faction in a January 2006 election and took over the Gaza Strip 18 months later, has been shunned by Western powers for refusing to renounce violence and recognize Israel.

But Hamas receives support from Iran and other regional allies and levies local taxes.

In apparent reference to Iran’s role, Sheikh Abdullah said the Abu Dhabi meeting on Tuesday was expected to be the first of several taking place over the coming weeks aimed at bridging differences among Arab countries that were underscored by divisions over how best to deal with the Gaza offensive.

“We are working to overcome this difficult time in the Arab world to achieve a reconciliation that will put an end to unwelcome involvement in our affairs by non-Arab parties in an often non-constructive manner,” Sheikh Abdullah said.

Reporting by Lin Noueihed, writing by Firouz Sedarat

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