Abbas holds truce talks as Israeli court declares pullout legal

By Adel Zaanoun
Published June 9th 2005
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas called on militant factions in the Gaza Strip Thursday to respect a fragile truce with Israel, as the Jewish state's supreme court removed a legal hurdle to the pullout of settlers from the territory.

"We must maintain calm despite the continuous provocations from Israel," Abbas said on Palestinian national television.

"If you want to achieve peace and security, it is in our national interest to maintain calm."

Abbas had earlier met with representatives of the Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza City. He had travelled to the Islamists' stronghold in the aftermath of an attack, claimed both by both groups, on a Jewish settlement that killed two Palestinians and one Chinese farm worker.

Tension was further stoked on Wednesday when four Hamas followers were forced to flee an Israeli air strike targeting their vehicle.

The factions have been observing a less than watertight truce since January but say they reserve the right to respond to "Israeli aggressions."

"During the meeting with president Abbas, we stressed the determination of the resistance to respond to any Israeli aggression against our people," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.

"We will respond to every Israeli violation or aggression."

Abbas has consistently called for an end to the armed uprising, now nearly five years old, but has held back from meeting Israeli demands to launch a crackdown on the likes of Hamas.

Abbas also sought to explain his recent decision to indefinitely postpone parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for next month.

Hamas was furious at the move and some observers think the spike in violence is due to a power struggle between the group and Abbas's Fatah faction.

Abu Zuhri said Hamas had told Abbas it "still rejected" the postponement.

"No serious new date (for the elections) was discussed," he added.

Senior Jihad official Khaled al-Batsh said Abbas and the factions reached an agreement for a new electoral law under which half the MPs in a new parliament would be voted by proportional representation and the rest by constituencies.

There was no confirmation of the agreement from the Palestinian Authority.

Disagreements about the electoral law were cited by Abbas when he delayed the elections although it is widely felt that Fatah was keen for a postponement in order to gear up for a concerted challenge from Hamas.

A strong electoral showing for Hamas in July had threatened to upset the upcoming Israeli pullout from Gaza, especially after Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom called for a complete rethink if Hamas emerged triumphant.

With the plan passed by parliament, the 8,000 Gaza settlers are having to resort to other avenues in a desperate bid to stay put.

Their attempts suffered a blow Thursday when judges rejected petitions contesting the legality of a law that underpins the withdrawal.

In its judgement, the panel determined that the occupied territories are not part of Israel and the legal procedures of the state therefore do not apply.

Justice Minister Tzippi Livni said the ruling would make settlers face up to reality "that the process is on its way."

The council of the main Gush Katif settlement bloc said "the blatant discrimination from the court can only strengthen the struggle on the ground."

Meanwhile, a former Israeli chief rabbi, who has been a fierce opponent of the pullout, called on settlers not to use force to prevent their evacuation.

Mordechai Eliyahu, one of the most influential figures in religious Zionism, also called on soldiers not to refuse orders to carry out the disengagement project.

"We must not get in a situation in which one Jew raises his hand against another," Eliyahu said.

Sharon has pledged to coordinate the pullout, originally conceived as a unilateral project, with the Palestinians.

But Palestinian civil affairs minister Mohammed Dahlan accused Israel of refusing to supply details on the pullout.

"If Israel continues in the same fashion ... I know that the disengagement is going to be a failure. If we can't work together it will be a failed prospect."