Rice visit will only further deepen schism among Palestinians, Hamas warns

Abbas, Mashaal may attempt to reconcile in Damascus.

US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's visit to the region will only deepen divisions among Palestinians, the Hamas-led government said Saturday. Meanwhile, efforts are under way to arrange a summit between Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Syria-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, in yet another attempt to end the power struggle in the PA. Abbas made a brief visit on Saturday to Amman, where he discussed with Jordan's King Abdullah Rice's visit and ways of ending tensions with Hamas. Sources close to Abbas said the PA was not pinning high hopes on the US secretary of state. "We don't believe she is bringing new ideas," the sources said. "Rice's visit is aimed at undermining the internal Palestinian front and imposing solutions that serve the interests of Israel," said Hamas government spokesman Ghazi Hamad. "This visit will only deepen divisions and schism among the Palestinians." PA officials in Ramallah said Abbas planned to visit Damascus in the coming days at the invitation of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is mediating between Fatah and Hamas. "In recent days there has been some progress in efforts to resolve the crisis and form a Palestinian unity government," a senior PA official told The Jerusalem Post. "I believe that President Abbas and Mashaal will meet sometime next week in the Syrian capital." Relations between the two have been strained ever since Mashaal accused Abbas several months ago of collaborating with the US and Israel to topple the Hamas-led government. Abbas has since rejected proposals by some Arab countries to meet with Mashaal, insisting that the Hamas leader first apologize for his allegations. Egypt and Islamic Jihad are also involved in efforts to patch up the differences between Fatah and Hamas. Muhammad al-Hindi, a senior Islamic Jihad official from the Gaza Strip, is reported to have met with Mashaal in Cairo last week. Senior Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan, who also visited Cairo last week at the head of a Fatah delegation, held a series of meetings with Hindi and Egyptian government officials to discuss ways of resolving the crisis in the PA, another PA official told the Post. According to the official, Dahlan's talks in Cairo led to "positive results." He said an agreement between Hamas and Fatah on a coalition government could be signed in Cairo before the end of the month. Abbas, who is expected to brief Rice on the outcome of the negotiations with Hamas, has dispatched two envoys to Syria, Egypt and Qatar as part of his efforts to defuse tensions with Hamas. The envoys, independent legislator Ziad Abu Amr and Khaled Salam, a former financial adviser to Yasser Arafat, met secretly in Damascus with Mashaal and succeeded in convincing him to make "far-reaching" concessions on the unity government issue and on kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the official added. Dahlan, according to sources in the Gaza Strip, is holding secret talks with some of Shalit's captors in a bid to end the affair and to bring about a prisoner exchange with Israel. "Dahlan is in touch with a leading figure from the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees [one of the groups that is holding Shalit] in a bid to take the initiative from the hands of Hamas," the sources said. Under the terms of a new compromise proposal, PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh would head a unity government, while Abbas's Fatah party would be given the key portfolios of Foreign Affairs, Finance and Information. The controversial Interior Ministry, which is formally in charge of the PA security forces, would be handed over to an independent figure. The Bethlehem-based Maan news agency quoted a senior Hamas source as saying that the two sides had agreed on the distribution of cabinet ministries. "These understandings will lead to the formation of a unity government," the source said. "We hope that Rice's visit will not torpedo the understandings." In another sign that Hamas and Fatah are close to a deal, Haniyeh called on the two parties to stop fighting each other and to direct their weapons against Israel. "There's no denying that political differences exist among us," he said. "But this dispute should not be translated into fighting on the streets." Haniyeh also called for an immediate cessation of the war of words that has been raging between Fatah and Hamas over the past few months.