/ 25 November 2007

Hamas warns of violence after talks

Hamas officials have issued stark warnings that the Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis this week is likely to result in more violence rather than settlement, including a threat from the group to escalate its own ”resistance” to Israeli occupation.

In a series of statements delivered from both Damascus and the Gaza Strip, which Hamas controls, the organisation piled more pressure on a meeting that most commentators have suggested has little chance of producing any concrete moves towards Palestinian statehood.

In the Syrian capital, Abu Marzouk said Hamas, which was not invited to Annapolis in Maryland, does not expect the talks to produce any benefits for the Palestinians. ”Resistance in all its forms will escalate in the West Bank and Gaza against the Zionist enemy,” he said in an interview on the Hamas website. ”This is because Annapolis will expose the arbitrariness of the settlement track and its destructive endeavours.”

In Gaza, a Hamas official condemned the decision by Arab powers to endorse this week’s US-hosted conference, saying the talks will favour Israel’s policies rather than Palestinian demands.

Arab League ministers agreed on Friday to attend the conference in the hope of promoting the creation of a Palestinian state and pushing for Israel to return the occupied Golan Heights to Syria as part of a regional peace process.

A Hamas official, Sami Abu Zuhri, called the announcement ”a great shock for Palestinians because it opened the door for direct normalisation with the occupation [Israel] amid [its] continued escalation and aggression”.

A third Hamas official — also in Gaza — warned that the group has mastered the technology to make the Qassam rockets it fires at Israel much deadlier by packing them with more explosives. It follows a warning by Israeli officials that Hamas might try to disrupt the conference with more intense rocket fire.

Talks break down

Marzouk’s comments come as pre-conference talks in Jerusalem broke down days before Israeli and Palestinian leaders prepared to travel to the US. Negotiators from both sides failed to agree on a joint document to present to the conference.

The Israeli team for Annapolis will be led by Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister, and the Palestinians by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority. Both men are weak domestically, which will make it harder for them to implement any agreement.

Abbas lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas, while Olmert is supported by a coalition government that is divided on the use of negotiations with the Palestinians. Analysts doubt whether either man has the political support to implement the changes required for peace.

However, political leaders are upbeat about the chances of success for the summit. Salam Fayad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, said his negotiators are going to the US to hasten the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Most commentators do not foresee meaningful results emerging from the meeting, however. They believe the most likely outcome will be a return to phase one of the road map promoted by United States President George Bush in 2003. The first phase envisaged the Palestinians establishing state institutions and preventing terrorism while Israel was to freeze all settlement expansion and remove illegal outposts in the West Bank.

‘Ritual speeches’

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst and former adviser to Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, when he was prime minister, said he had no expectation of anything of importance happening in the US.

”There will be the ritual speeches and a celebration of the fact that they are both going back to phase one of the road map. Everything has been rigged to call it a success, but the problems start the day after the conference,” he said. ”Olmert cannot reopen the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] office in Jerusalem or remove the illegal outposts. Mahmoud Abbas is incapable of expanding security beyond Ramallah and a small part of Nablus. He can’t do anything with Gaza.”

Alpher predicted that the only possible surprise that could emerge would be a resumption of peace talks between Israel and Syria. Barak is said to believe that Israel would profit more from peace with Syria than the Palestinians. He said: ”Negotiations with Syria are more worthwhile because the payoff is bigger, but that will depend on the Americans.”

Syria has said it will attend the conference if its claim for the return of the Golan Heights from Israel is on the agenda. Israel captured the heights in the 1967 Six-Day War, and Syria insists on their return before any peace deal.

”Syria will wait until it receives the conference agenda,” said Walid Moallem, the Syrian Foreign Minister. ”President Bashir al-Assad will then decide whether to attend or not, and at what level.”

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal, said he will attend, adding the gathering must make serious progress. ”The Arab peace follow-up group has decided to accept the invitation to attend Annapolis at a ministerial level to discuss the peace process,” al-Faisal said at the end of talks by Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo. — Guardian Unlimited Â