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In a direct challenge to the authority of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, around 50 gunmen from a newly formed internal security force marched in Gaza Thursday, despite Abbas's explicit opposition to the force's existence.
The latest power play between the vying Hamas and Fatah factions took place as Abbas continued a European tour seeking funding for the bankrupt PA, with a stop in Helsinki to visit the incoming European Union president.
Masked gunmen from the Popular Resistance Committees jumped out of moving vehicles, hid behind trees and proclaimed their loyalty to Islam during a display for reporters in Gaza, Reuters reported, but the message was more than likely intended for Abbas.
Just a week ago, the PA chairman vetoed the formation of the security force sought by Hamas. Ostensibly, the force was to crack down on the lawlessness pervading the Palestinian territories and in particular the Gaza Strip.
But its formation was widely interpreted as an attempt by Hamas to wrestle a modicum of security personnel control from Fatah, which has refused to transfer the vast majority of PA security forces to the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry from the Chairman's Office.
The veto of the force and the man who was to lead it - Jamal Abu Samhadanah - to an additional security post sparked clashes in Gaza on Sunday in which some 40 people were wounded.
Samhadanah, No. 2 on Israel's most wanted list, is the leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, and a spokesman for the gunmen said that group would contribute 500 men to the new force which would be 3,000 strong and include members of Hamas's al-Kassam Brigades.
The new security force underscores what Brig.-Gen Shalom Harari, who spent 20 years serving in the territories, says is a growing movement by Hamas to establish parallel forces to Fatah in areas in which Abbas is shutting out Hamas from assuming control: security, media, finance, and border crossings.
"Hamas understands it won't be easy, they know that until now they have failed to penetrate these services," Harari said. "No doubt that the lack of money to Hamas weakens the Hamas position and makes it slower for them in their attempt to take over the PA. But even if they had the money, Fatah would probably not let them take over the services. The main problem has been political rather than financial until now."
Meanwhile, in Helsinki on Thursday, Abbas met with Finnish President Tarja Halonen, who is set to assume the rotating EU presidency in July, appealing to Halonen to convince the EU to resume financial aid to the PA.
Abbas also told reporters after the meeting that he would soon approach Israeli leaders about resuming peace talks in an international summit despite the idea being flatly rejected by Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the day before. Olmert has said he would talk to Abbas, but would not negotiate with him over the Hamas-led PLC.
"I think after the establishment of the Israeli government, we will make an initiative to the Israelis to return to the negotiating table," Abbas told reporters in Helsinki. "We hope that they will be positive." After the quick stop in Finland, Abbas continued on to France.
Abbas's efforts to refocus the Palestinian message on peace with Israel are a welcome turn away from the internal conflict that is threatening to tear the Palestinian society apart, said Eyad Sarraj, a Gaza psychiatrist who was an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team at the 2000 Camp David Summit.
"They all forgot that they are occupied and facing Israeli unilateralism in deciding borders," Sarraj said of Fatah and Hamas leaders. "Abbas is trying to salvage the peace process because he knows Israel is taking land every day and using Hamas as a pretext - because of their stupid announcements - to say that there is no Palestinian partner for peace."