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Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas on Saturday renewed his offer for a 10-year truce with Israel in return for the establishment of a temporary Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
Haniyeh's offer, which had previously been rejected by both Israel and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, came only hours before Abbas had been scheduled to meet in Damascus with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal for talks on ways of resolving the ongoing power struggle in the PA.
However, a senior member of a Palestinian faction said Saturday night there would not be such a meeting Saturday, but that it might take place on Sunday.
Fatah and Hamas officials had played down the significance of the Abbas-Mashaal talks - the first summit of its kind since July 2005 - and pointed out that the gap between the two parties concerning the formation of a unity government remains as wide as ever. The officials also did not rule out the possibility that the meeting would not take place after all because of the continued dispute.
The main argument is over the Interior Ministry, which is formally in charge of the PA security forces. Hamas officials reiterated over the weekend their opposition to ceding control over the ministry.
Ahmed Yussef, political adviser to Haniyeh, said Hamas was opposed to the formation of a unity government simply to appease the US and Israel. "Hamas has displayed flexibility regarding the key cabinet ministries, including the Interior Ministry," he said. "But we don't want these portfolios to be handed over to figures backed by the US and Israel."
Haniyeh earlier expressed hope that the meeting between Abbas and Mashaal would contribute to easing tensions between Hamas and Fatah. "This meeting might lead to more understandings between the two sides," he told reporters in Gaza City. "But this is definitely not the last meeting of its kind."
Muhammad Nazzal, a senior Hamas official based in Damascus, described the summit as a "severe blow" to many of Abbas's advisers and spokesmen who, he claimed, worked hard in the past few days to prevent the meeting from taking place.
He said that besides focusing on the unity government idea, the two were also planning to discuss ways of reconstructing the PLO and ending the war of words between Fatah and Hamas.
Independent legislator Mustafa Barghouti, who has been acting as a mediator between the two sides, said that "even if the talks did not lead to positive results, the summit itself is of great significance.
"The summit will create a positive atmosphere and remove some obstacles," he said.
"We're not very optimistic," a source close to Abbas in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post. "We still don't see real changes in Hamas's position regarding the unity government. Moreover, Hamas is still refusing to abide by all agreements that have been signed between the PLO and Israel since 1993."
Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a top aide to Abbas, said he too was not optimistic. Noting that the two parties were still at loggerheads over several issues, Rahman lashed out at Hamas for its refusal to dismantle its "Executive Force" militia, which was recently outlawed by Abbas.
Earlier, Abbas met in Damascus with President Bashar Assad, who offered to mediate between Fatah and Hamas, said Nabil Amr, media adviser to the PA chairman.
PA official Saeb Erekat said Abbas told Assad that the program of the proposed unity government must meet conditions set by the Quartet for the lifting of sanctions that have harmed the Palestinian economy.
"We need a government whose political program will win the support of the international community," he said.
In a development that is likely to have a negative impact on the Abbas-Mashaal summit, a Fatah leader in the West Bank on Saturday accused Hamas of building a "republic of underground tunnels" in the Gaza Strip.
Jamal Nazzal, a senior Fatah spokesman, said the network of tunnels resembled those built by al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
Last week Fatah claimed that the underground tunnels were dug to assassinate senior Fatah and PA leaders, including Abbas and top Fatah operative Muhammad Dahlan. Hamas has strongly denied the charges, saying the tunnels were part of a plan to foil a possible Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip.