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(photo credit: AP)
Fatah leaders were debating on Sunday whether to go ahead with plans to hold their sixth general assembly next week or postpone it, after Hamas said it wouldn't allow members of the faction to leave the Gaza Strip.
Hamas officials said the Fatah representatives would not be allowed to travel to the West Bank unless the Palestinian Authority released hundreds of Hamas supporters being held without trial in Palestinian detention centers.
Ismail Radwan, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, said that his government would consider the possibility of permitting some 400 Fatah members to leave the Gaza Strip only if the PA released "political detainees" and reopened all Hamas-affiliated institutions that its security forces shut down in recent months.
"Hamas will allow them to go to the [Fatah] conference in Bethlehem if all the political detainees are released and if the Palestinian Authority reopens all the institutions that were closed down," Radwan said. "Fatah is not interested in dialogue [with Hamas], and its ongoing security cooperation with Israel is the main reason why the reconciliation talks failed."
Fatah officials in Ramallah said they had asked Egypt, Syria and Turkey to intervene with Hamas to allow the delegates to leave the Gaza Strip.
Fatah appeared to be divided over the participation of the Gaza delegates.
Faisal Abu Shahla, a Fatah legislator, said he favored postponing the conference until Hamas rescinded its decision, arguing that it was "inconceivable" that the gathering should take place "without our brothers from the Gaza Strip."
He and several Fatah operatives said they had been trying to persuade their leaders to call off the long-delayed conference in protest of Hamas's ban.
However, other Fatah representatives in Ramallah said they were strongly opposed to the postponement of the conference, on the grounds that such a move would cause further damage to their faction's credibility.
"Hamas is trying to extort us," complained Azzam al-Ahmed, another Fatah legislator. "We must not allow them to win."
Fatah spokesman Fahmi Za'areer said Hamas's ban would have "serious repercussions" for efforts to consolidate the internal Palestinian front and achieve Palestinian national unity.
Hamas, he charged, was committing a new crime against the Palestinian people by seeking to spoil the sixth general assembly of Fatah.
Fatah legislators in the Gaza Strip told The Jerusalem Post that the Hamas government had informed them that they would not be permitted to travel to the West Bank for the conference.
Legislator Ashraf Juma'ah, who is also a member of the Fatah "revolutionary council," condemned the measure against him and his colleagues as a "flagrant violation of freedom of expression and an assault on our parliamentary immunity."
He claimed that Hamas's ban was part of an "Israeli conspiracy" to thwart the Fatah parley. He added that he did not believe that the conference would be convened without the participation of the Fatah members from the Gaza Strip.
Also Sunday, Hamas's security forces arrested four senior Fatah operatives who were preparing to travel to the West Bank for the conference, a Palestinian journalist in Gaza City told the Post.
The journalist named the four men as Abdel Aziz Makadmeh, Faisal Muhanna, Jalil Ishtaiwi and Shafik al-Talouli.
Three female Fatah members from the Gaza Strip were also banned from traveling to the West Bank, the journalist said. He said that Hamas security forces had confiscated the women's ID cards to prevent them from leaving the Gaza Strip. The three were identified as Itidal Abu Kamar, Zainab al-Daghmah and Siham al-Karm.
Meanwhile, scores of Fatah representatives in different Arab countries have notified the Fatah leadership in Ramallah that they will not attend the conference because it is being held under "Israeli occupation."
It is not clear how many Fatah members living outside the PA territories have been invited to attend the conference. Ironically, their decision to boycott the conference is likely to boost the local Fatah representatives, who are often thought to be less radical than their colleagues who live in Arab countries.
Organizers were hoping that more than 1,500 Fatah members would attend the conference, which is expected to hold internal elections for some of its two key institutions, the Revolutionary Council and the Central Committee.
Many Fatah members have said they expect a stormy session due to the nature of the issues on the conference's agenda. These issues include the mysterious death of Yasser Arafat and Fatah's expulsion from the Gaza Strip by Hamas.
In a related development, a veteran hard-line Fatah leader who has long been considered a "natural successor" to Abbas has decided to move from Jordan to the West Bank.
Ahmed Ghnaim, better known as Abu Maher, was among several Fatah leaders who openly challenged Arafat when he signed the Oslo Accords with Israel. Sources close to Ghnaim said he was planning to attend next week's conference before moving to Ramallah permanently.
His decision to move to the West Bank triggered a wave of rumors that he was planning to replace Abbas in the near future.