Efforts to resume coalition talks between Fatah and Hamas suffered a major setback on Wednesday when an attempt was made to assassinate a senior Fatah leader in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who returned to the Strip on Wednesday from a brief visit to Saudi Arabia, said the attempt to kill Abu Ali Shaheen, a former PA minister, underscored the need for a Palestinian unity government.
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A planned meeting between Abbas and PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was postponed in the aftermath of the attack. Sources close to Abbas said the meeting could take place as early as Thursday.
"We need a unity government that will tackle the state of anarchy and lawlessness in our areas," Abbas told reporters after visiting Shaheen at the Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City. "There are many forces that are playing with fire and harm our national interests. A unity government will be able to solve most of the problems."
Shaheen, who served 15 years in Israeli prisons for security offenses, was moderately wounded when unidentified gunmen shot him in Gaza City late Tuesday night. The attack took place shortly after he left a local radio station where he had strongly criticized Hamas in an interview.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but Fatah representatives were quick to accuse Hamas and its 3,000-strong "executive force." They noted that Shaheen has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Hamas government and its security force.
Shaheen recently staged a one-man protest in the streets of Gaza City in which he carried a placard condemning Hamas's executive force as a "black militia responsible for intimidation and terror."
Samir Masharawi, another senior Fatah leader in the Gaza Strip, said the assassins were "suspicious cowards" serving the interests of Israel.
Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, said in a statement that the murder attempt was designed to torpedo the Palestinian coalition talks.
Referring to Hamas's executive force, the group said: "These suspicious militias are launching a campaign of intimidation against Fatah leaders. We will chase the criminals who are working according to the Israeli agenda and we will strike at them with an iron fist."
Some Fatah officials said they did not rule out the possibility that the Hamas leadership in Syria was behind the assassination attempt. According to the officials, some Hamas leaders in Damascus have been consistently trying to sabotage Abbas's efforts to form a unity government.
PA officials refused to comment on reports in Arab newspapers that said Abbas met secretly with Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal during his visit to Saudi Arabia.
The officials said Fatah and Hamas had yet to agree on a political platform for the proposed unity government, or on who would control several of the ministries. They said Hamas was refusing to cede control over four portfolios: foreign affairs, finance, interior and information.
Deputy PA Prime Minister Nasser Eddin Shaer said Hamas had already agreed to relinquish 15 portfolios, including the premiership.