Palestinian leaders gather for crisis summit

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas supremo Khaled Meshaal prepared on Tuesday for crisis talks in Saudi Arabia aimed at ending a power struggle that has cost scores of lives.

Abbas was the first to arrive in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, followed by Meshaal and then by Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, head of the Hamas-led government, a diplomat and an Agence France-Presse correspondent said.

Members of the delegations said Abbas and Meshaal were due to meet separately with Saudi King Abdullah, who invited the rival leaders to hold talks in the kingdom in a bid to end a power struggle that has left scores dead.

They were late on Tuesday to hold an initial encounter in Jeddah before open-ended negotiations begin in earnest in the holy city of Mecca on Wednesday.

Back home a shaky ceasefire between Abbas’s Fatah faction and the ruling Hamas was holding in the Gaza Strip where guns, mortars and grenades have fallen silent for the first time in days.

About 100 people have been killed since the seething political tensions boiled over into street fighting and tit-for-tat attacks in December, the worst factional violence since Hamas took office early last year.

The summit in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, will seek to overcome deep-seated differences between the rival factions on a power-sharing agreement, a national-unity government and ties to Israel.

“We are going there full of optimism and hope about reaching an agreement allowing us to preserve our unity, cement a political partnership and heal our wounds,” Hamas premier Ismail Haniya said before also heading for Jeddah.

He vowed to “work seriously to reach an inter-Palestinian agreement based on putting a unity government in place”.

Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Abbas, was also optimistic. “There is a good chance of success at the Mecca meeting because the points of differences have lessened,” he said in Doha.

“Hamas will come into the meeting with new ideas, which will perhaps be accepted on a commitment [to respecting] international and Arab accords as well as on the post of interior minister,” he said.

Negotiators have tried but failed for months to find common ground on the key issues of ties with Israel and the division of portfolios in a unity accord that would seat Hamas and Fatah at the same Cabinet table.

“I hope that the brothers will leave the holy city with a binding accord … and that they will pledge … to stop this bloodshed,” King Abdullah said in a message carried by the official SPA news agency.

Hamas and Fatah have been at odds since the Islamists won a shock election victory in January 2006, thrashing their secular rivals and limiting its power to the presidency.

The Hamas government has resisted pressure to renounce violence, recognise Israel and abide by peace deals between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Israel.

An ensuing political and aid boycott by the West has unleashed an unprecedented Palestinian economic crisis.

Meshaal, who lives in exile in Damascus and is one of Israel’s most wanted men, has also impressed a sense of urgency on the Mecca talks. “I say to Fatah that it is forbidden to fail. Only dialogue can settle political disagreements,” he said on Sunday.

The Mecca summit will be a second rare meeting for the Western-backed Abbas and Meshaal after talks in Syria on January 21 ended without a breakthrough.

Just four days after their last meeting, another bout of violence flared in the Gaza Strip, with the death toll from that round of fighting now standing at 66. — AFP

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