The Hamas-led government is planning to recruit more militiamen to its Executive Force in the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of recent clashes with Fatah, Hamas officials said Thursday. Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas told reporters in Ramallah that he is hoping to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before the end of the month. Abbas expressed hope that the meeting would result in the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Abbas: Talks with Hamas still possible
Abbas is expected to visit Jordan next Sunday for talks with King Abdullah on the ongoing crisis with Hamas. Fearing that the Hamas-Fatah tensions may spread to Palestinian refugee camps in the kingdom, the king has offered to serve as a mediator between the two parties.
The Executive Force, which was established a few months ago by Interior Minister Said Siam of Hamas, today includes nearly 3,000 members. According to Hamas officials, the plan calls for raising the number of the Executive Force personnel to 5,000.
"The force has been a great success," said a top Hamas official in Gaza City. "The force has played a major role in imposing law and order and battling crime. Only last week, we managed to arrest several people in the Gaza Strip who are suspected of forging tens of thousands of shekels."
Asked if the plan to expand the force was related to the recent fighting with Fatah, the official replied: "The Executive Force's role is also to provide protection to Hamas leaders and activists who are being targeted by Fatah and other groups. The force does not want to be involved in internal fighting, but if we are attacked, we will respond." The official pointed out that the major obstacle facing the Executive Force was continued attacks from Israel, adding that more than 50 Hamas militiamen have been killed since the force began operating in the Gaza Strip.
One of the force members, Hamdan Barhoum, 24, died Thursday of wounds he sustained when Israeli warships fired at suspicious boats off the Gaza coast ten days ago. Like most of the force members, Barhoum also belonged to Hamas's armed wing, Izaddin al-Kassam.
The Executive Force was established by Siam in response to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's decision to take control over the PA security forces away from the Hamas-led government. Fatah leaders have repeatedly condemned the establishment of the new force as illegal, warning that the presence of its members on the streets contributed to the growing state of anarchy and lawlessness.
In a separate development, Hamas leaders decided to boycott a meeting of various Palestinian factions in Gaza City late Wednesday night after noticing that hundreds of Fatah gunmen had been deployed at the scene and on surrounding rooftops.
Fearing that they would be targeted by snipers, the Hamas representatives informed the participants that they were unable to attend for "security reasons." At the meeting, representatives of the factions, including Abbas's Fatah party, called for the resumption of talks between Hamas and Fatah over the formation of a unity government.
Fatah spokesman Maher Miqdad said that when Abbas called for early presidential and parliamentary elections, he left the door open for the formation of a unity government. He called on the two sides not to waste time in "fruitless" talks and to form a unity government that would be able to lift the international sanctions imposed on the Palestinians since Hamas came to power.