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05 Jun 2006 12:25
A deadline imposed by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for Hamas to soften its policies to end an acute crisis ticked to a close on Monday as at least five people were killed in fighting in Gaza.
Meetings were planned throughout the day and evening in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where the moderate Palestinian Authority president is based as well as in the Gaza-stronghold of the governing Islamist group Hamas.
Hamas has come under mounting pressure to accept an initiative drawn up by jailed faction leaders which has been the centrepiece of the last 10 days of cross-party talks, or national dialogue.
Abbas has vowed to put the document—which calls for national unity rule and a Palestinian state on land conquered by Israel in 1967, not all historic Palestine as championed by Hamas—to a referendum in 40 days if there is no agreement.
Sources close to Abbas have said the deadline will expire at midnight (9pm GMT).
Without a positive response from Hamas, he is then expected to chair a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and make a statement on Tuesday.
Any acceptance of the blueprint by the Islamist movement, which is branded a terrorist organisation in the West, would entail implicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist within the borders set by 1949 armistice agreements.
In March, the European Union and United States cut aid payments to the Palestinian Authority over the Hamas government’s refusal to recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous peace agreements.
As a result, the Palestinian Authority has teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, unable to pay the salaries of its 160 000 civil servants since March, exacerbating Palestinian discontent and feuding jealous rivalries.
Two Arab Bank branches were forced to close in Gaza on Monday amid violent altercations with furious civil servants who have still not received their salaries, a bank official said.
One day earlier, some employees who earn less than $330 a month received one month of their back salary checks at the Bank of Palestine.
Indeed the chances of clinching a political deal looked ever more remote after the worst night of clashes between Fatah and Hamas rivals in the Gaza Strip left five Palestinians dead, including a 22-year-old pregnant woman.
The funerals were due to take place on Monday for three bystanders killed in the Shatti refugee camp in Gaza City where Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya lives, as loyalists from the two rival factions traded fire.
Haniya was at home at the time, ironically meeting a representative dispatched by Abbas in order to extract a response to the nearing ultimatum.
A pregnant woman and her brother were also killed in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis.
One Palestinian from the militant group Hamas was killed and his wife and child wounded when an explosion detonated in the Jabaliya refugee camp on the northern outskirts of Gaza City. The source of the blast was not immediately clear.
Both Hamas and its smaller rival Islamic Jihad have so far refused to accept the document that has been endorsed by other parties, taking issue particularly with parts of the text that would require implicit recognition of Israel.
Haniya has so far kept his position on a referendum ambiguous, saying that a plebiscite would be illegal but that it merited “serious” study.
Amid the looming deadline for a Palestinian political deal, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana was to hold talks with Abbas in Ramallah, following a scheduled meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem.
Olmert said on Sunday after a summit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that he intended to meet the beleagured Palestinian leader and that talks with the Palestinians were Israel’s “first priority”.
Israel, however, is unlikely to start serious talks as long as Hamas continues to lead a Palestinian government without recognising the Jewish state or renouncing its violence that has killed hundreds of Israelis in the past. - Sapa-AFP
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