David Miller
The Media Line
March 20, 2011 - 12:00am

As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prepares an historic visit to the Gaza Strip, heeding an invitation by his arch-rival, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, doubts have begun to arise as to whether there will be anyone to greet him upon arrival.

Haniyeh invited Abbas on March 15 to Gaza to take part in reconciliation talks. Abbas responded the following day by saying he was prepared "to go to Gaza tomorrow." But on Saturday a Hamas official in Damascus poured cold water on Abbas' eagerness, comparing him to Arab dictators who are being challenged by the masses across the Arab world.

"Abbas' response to Prime Minister Haniyeh's invitation clearly shows that he and his inner circle haven't yet learned the lesson," Nazal told the Palestinian Information Center, a Hamas News Agency. "They are like many dictators who didn't understand, or did when it was too late."

Hamas and Fatah have been politically divided since the former took control of the Gaza Strip in a violent coup in June 2007. Hamas continues to refuse the three basic demands of the international community which include the renouncement of violent struggle against Israel, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements signed between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

The talk of unity comes as protests have erupted in the West Bank and Gaza calling on the two rival camps to end the split. After initially pledging support, Hamas has responded violently to demonstrations last week.

Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said Abbas still planned on visiting Gaza, but the mixed messages from Hamas made it difficult to finalize a schedule.

"There has been a contradictory response from Gaza," Khatib told The Media Line, adding that Abbas' aid, Nimr Hammad, was assembling a small preparatory delegation of Palestinians to enter the Gaza Strip, in coordination with the Israelis.

On Saturday, former speaker of the Palestinian parliament and member of Hamas Aziz Dweik stated his intention to accompany Abbas into Gaza and assist his efforts in achieving national unity. “The president’s initiative to visit Gaza should be taken advantage of,” he told Ma'an News Agency.

Hamas and Fatah disagree on the purpose of Abbas' visit to Gaza, Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist from Al-Azhar University, told The Media Line. Abbas said his intention was to begin talks on a national unity government, which would include Hamas and pave the way to presidential and parliamentary elections within six months. But Hamas says it prefers open-ended "unity talks" that would only lead to elections in a few years.

"When Haniyeh invited Abbas he didn't expect Abbas to accept the invitation," Abusada told The Media Line. "Hamas is not interested in any elections at this time, nor in a unity government. The only unity government Hamas will accept would be headed by Haniyeh and Hamas. To be honest, Hamas is not interested in ending the divide, only to maintain their grip on Gaza."

This was not the first time Abbas was invited to Gaza. In January 2008, Ahmad Yousef, an advisor to Ismail Haniyeh, extended an invitation to Abbas to visit the Gaza Strip. "We hope that this contact will be the lighting of a candle that will guide us to the right path," he told Ma'an News Agency. That visit never materialized.

Egypt was the most serious broker of reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah, but since a popular uprising that deposed President Husni Mubarak on February 11, Egypt was preoccupied with internal matters. However, senior Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmad said he would soon head to Cairo and seek Egyptian brokerage on behalf of President Abbas.

But Nazal, the Hamas official in Syria, said the Egyptians weren’t honest brokers and tried to impose their solution on the sides, attempting to "exclude Hamas from the political arena" on behalf of "international interests."

"What Nazal said is absurd," professor Abusada told The Media Line. "Hamas is constantly trying to find excuses to continue the political divide. First it's a demand to release political prisoners, then a demand to end security cooperation with Israel."

Shunning Abbas wasn’t the only indication that Hamas rejected political reconciliation. A mass demonstration in Gaza last Tuesday calling for an end to the political divide was disrupted by Hamas plainclothes men, who attacked demonstrators. Sporadic protests continued in Gaza throughout the week. In an impromptu demonstration of 100 journalists on Saturday, three journalists were reportedly attacked and intimidated by Hamas agents.

Hamas fired over 50 mortars into Israel on Saturday in a move Israeli commentators view as an attempt to deflect attention from domestic pressures. While rockets and other projectiles have been routinely fired at Israel, the attack over the weekend was the first in which Hamas took direct responsibility

Abusada said he believed Abbas was serious in his efforts to end the political divide, since the stalled peace negotiations with Israel has harmed in credibility among the Palestinian public which is yearning for palpable results on the ground.

"Each side is trying to embarrass the other," Sameeh Hammoudah, a political scientist at Bir-Zeit University in Ramallah told The Media Line. "But if President Abbas takes the initiative and goes to Gaza he will win points with the Palestinian public, which strongly supports ending the divide."


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