RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories (AFP) – Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said on Wednesday he was ready to go to Gaza this week for talks with Hamas about ending the split and forming a interim government.
Abbas, leader of the secular Fatah movement, said he was ready to go to Gaza “tomorrow” for talks with the enclave’s Islamist rulers about ending the bitter split that has poisoned relations within the Palestinian national movement.
“I am ready to go to Gaza tomorrow to end the division and form a government of independent national figures to start preparing for presidential, legislative and (Palestinian) National Council elections within six months,” he said in a speech to members of the PLO Central Council.
Pressed to clarify Abbas’s comments, his spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said the aim was to meet Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya with a view to forming an interim government of “neutral, national figures” in what was understood to mean independent politicians not directly affiliated with Hamas or Fatah.
This interim government’s “main task will be preparing for presidential and legislative elections, and elections to the Palestinian National Council within six months,” he told AFP.
“The president said he is ready to delay the formation of a new Palestinian government to allow for the success of this initiative,” Abu Rudeina said.
At the start of a two-day meeting of the PLO Central Council, a legislative body in which Fatah holds the majority, Abbas urged Haniya to make arrangements for the visit, which he said would happen “in the next few days” so the two could “turn the page on this black and shameful division.”
United Nations special envoy to the region Robert Serry welcomed the move, saying he hoped Abbas would make the visit to Gaza “soon.”
“I think it is very important that the leaders respond to the clear wish of the people to reunite. Unity is overdue and vital for Palestinian legitimate aspirations,” he said in a statement.
The Palestinian leader’s remarks came a day after Haniya invited him to Gaza for “immediate” talks to end the division, and were welcomed by the Islamists.
“Hamas welcomes Abbas’s acceptance of the Haniya initiative,” Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP. “We will start preparing for the visit.”
The exchange between the two leaders came a day after tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of Gaza and the West Bank to demand that the two factions end their long-running rivalry.
Amid the protest, Haniya held an emergency cabinet meeting after which he made a televised appeal to Abbas.
“I invite the president, brother Abu Mazen (Abbas), and Fatah to an immediate meeting here in Gaza or in any location which we agree upon, to start national dialogue in order to achieve reconciliation,” he said.
Abbas, who like Haniya expressed support for the protesters’ call for unity, urged that Hamas “not waste this historical opportunity to end the division, and to stand united against threats that severely damage our cause.”
On Tuesday, the Palestinian leader had reiterated his call for national elections as a way to end the split.
“I am with the people and in favour of going back to the people to put an end to the divisions through presidential and parliamentary elections,” he said.
Hamas had previously rejected such appeals, saying it would not participate without first securing some form of reconciliation with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank.
Prime minister Salam Fayyad is trying to form a new government ahead of a fresh round of presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections which officials want to hold by September at the latest.
In Wednesday’s speech, Abbas reiterated his position that he would not stand for president in the elections.
“I said it repeatedly and I say it again — I will not nominate myself” to run, he said.
Hamas and Fatah have been at loggerheads since the early 1990s. Tensions boiled over in 2007, when the enmity erupted into bloodshed that saw the Islamists kick their secular rivals out of Gaza.
Since then, the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip has been effectively cut off from the West Bank, which is under the control of Fatah.
Repeated attempts at reconciliation between the groups have led nowhere, and the collapse of the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak, which played a key role in reconciliation efforts, has created new uncertainty.