RAMALLAH, West Bank, (AP) – Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah on Monday were locked in a new dispute that threatens to derail next week’s Fatah convention, seen as key to rehabilitating the corruption-stained party that has led peace talks with Israel.
Officials in Hamas-ruled Gaza said Monday they would only allow Fatah delegates to leave the territory and travel to the conference if Fatah’s leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, releases hundreds of Hamas detainees in the West Bank, where his Western-backed Palestinian Authority is based.
The convention, Fatah’s first in 20 years, is to convene in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. More than 1,500 delegates, nearly one-third of them from Gaza and the rest from the West Bank and the Palestinian diaspora, are to choose dozens of new leaders and vote for a fresh political program.
The convention is seen as crucial to Fatah’s attempt to clean up its image, tainted by petty infighting and corruption, and present itself as an alternative to the militant Islamic Hamas. A stinging loss to Hamas in a 2006 parliamentary election and failure to establish a Palestinian state through negotiations with Israel have increasingly demoralized the once dominant party .
Abbas aides were not immediately available for comment on the standoff with Hamas, but a senior Palestinian official said Abbas had asked Syria, Russia and Turkey to intervene and help soften Hamas’ demands. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Nabil Shaath, a Fatah leader, said Monday it appeared unlikely the convention would be held without the Gaza contingent. “There would be a massive boycott of the conference ” in such a case, he said in an interview.
Shaath, who has been involved in Egyptian-brokered reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah, said his own movement had mishandled the prisoner issue and that its attempt to get foreign mediators to pressure Hamas on the subject was doomed to failure from the start.
“It won’t work, and I told everyone that,” he said.
Hamas and Fatah began rounding up each other’s supporters when Hamas violently seized control of Gaza in 2007 from forces loyal to Abbas. Worried about a Hamas takeover of his remaining power-base in the West Bank, Abbas began cracking down on the group’s activists, institutions and funding.
Shaath estimated that around 900 Hamas activists are jailed in the West Bank, while more than 200 Fatah supporters in Gaza have to report daily to Hamas offices and spend long hours there in an improvised form of detention, for lack of prison space.
Shaath said he believes many of the West Bank arrests were made without due legal process. He said Hamas in the past had been willing to accept a partial prisoner release, but that as the convention drew closer it upped the ante and now demands freedom for all the detainees.
In Gaza, Hamas lawmaker Ismail Ashqar confirmed the organization’s position.
“If Fatah wants its Gaza members to leave to the West Bank to attend the conference, they must release the leaders and supporters of Hamas in the West Bank,” he said.
The senior Palestinian official involved in the negotiations said Abbas has signaled he is ready to free 200 Hamas prisoners once the Fatah delegates leave Gaza.
At the same time, Abbas’ aides are threatening to detain more Hamas activists, including political leaders, if the standoff is not resolved, said Mahmoud Ramahi, a Hamas legislator in the West Bank.
“We received a clear threat from the Palestinian Authority that if Hamas does not allow Fatah members to leave Gaza, they will take harsh action against Hamas supporters, including the lawmakers,” Ramahi said.