In exclusion, Hamas counts

GAZA CITY, 10 January (IPS) - As US President George W. Bush began talks Thursday with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas supporters in Gaza were determined to make their absence count.

Leaders from the Palestinian party Hamas that won the elections in Gaza two years back have inevitably not been invited to meet Bush. The US considers Hamas a terrorist organization.

Hamas took control of Gaza by force from the Fatah party headed by Abbas in June last year, about a year and a half after it swept the polls in January 2006.

As Hamas leaders and supporters see it, Bush’s talks with Abbas can count for little if they are kept out. And so with Abbas’s talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just ahead of Bush’s visit.

The visit is “no more than an attempt by Bush to boost his image before he leaves office,” Dr. Salah al-Bardawil, spokesman and member of the Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform parliamentary bloc in the Palestinian Legislative Council told IPS.

In an interview with Israeli Television on Sunday, Bush said that before the end of his political career he wants to urge Israel and the Palestinians to reach a final agreement on establishing an independent Palestinian state.

Hamas is not convinced. “Bush can’t sincerely be speaking about a Palestinian state, since Israel has always refused to define distinct and clear-cut borders for, and thus recognize, a viable Palestinian state,” Bardawil said.

“One must ask what kind of country Bush is talking about when Israel insists on — and the Bush administration tolerates — expanding and building illegal Jewish settlements, building an internationally illegal apartheid wall, and depriving a country of its water and economy.”

While the red carpet was being laid for Bush in Ramallah for the meeting with Abbas, Israeli siege of Gaza, less than two hours drive from Ramallah, continues. Bush’s visit has again highlighted the divisions between Hamas and Fatah - and between the two big Palestinian areas, the Gaza Strip ruled by Hamas and the West Bank ruled by Fatah. “Bush is not welcomed by Hamas, nor by the majority of Palestinians,” Bardawil said.

On the other side, West Bank based Fatah leader Saeb Erekat said Fatah, represented by Abbas and Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, will ask Bush to pressure Israel to stop its expansion of illegal settlements and its military operations in the West Bank and the whole of the Gaza Strip.

PA and Israeli negotiating teams held two rounds of talks immediately after talks in Annapolis in the US in December, but failed to produce any tangible progress, mainly due to expansion of Israeli settlements.

The settlements on Palestinian land captured in the 1967 War are one of the most controversial issues in the decades-old occupation and conflict.

“While we are not optimistic about the intentions of President Bush’s visit, we do hope that he will work to end Israeli military practices and attacks, the building of the segregation wall, and to end the building and expanding of the hundreds of illegal Israeli settlements and outposts,” Zakaria al-Agha, one of the few senior Fatah leaders left in Gaza told IPS.

“The illegal Israeli practices contradict President Bush’s professed vision for peace,” he said. But while some of the Fatah and Hamas language is similar, it is Bush and Abbas who are talking to one another. In the eyes of many Palestinians, Hamas has gained legitimacy through this exclusion, while Fatah has lost its own in talking to Bush.

Bardawil said “this visit aims to empower Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] against Hamas and its government in Gaza.” But, he added, that “while trying to put pressure on Hamas, Bush really knows that no solution exists without Hamas.”

Suspicions abound over Bush’s visit. Bardawil said Bush “aims to empower what he calls the ‘moderate trend’ in order to use the people for his plans to attack Iran in the future.”

Both Hamas and Fatah members are watching closely to see what emerges on the ground from the visit. “President Bush wants to show that he is working for two states, Palestine and Israel,” said Agha. “But we want to see action, not just pretty words.”

A measure of action will be what Israel does on the issue of the settlements, the status of disputed Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the borders of a future Palestinian state.

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