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Hamas in Gaza, Damascus spar over unity deal

June 2, 2011 11:16 A.M. (Updated: June 3, 2011 8:35 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma’an) -- Senior Hamas figures are trying to play down a public spat between leaders in the Gaza Strip and Damascus over which base makes decisions on negotiating with Israel.

Mahmoud Zahhar, a senior official in Gaza, and Izzat Ar-Rishiq, a high-ranking politburo member in Damascus, have spent years as party delegation members in and out of Cairo, trying to broker unity with rival movement Fatah. They both worked on the reconciliation deal signed on May 4, which brought a formal close to the conflict between Hamas and Fatah.

Now the two are wrestling over the party’s stance on negotiations with Israel, highlighting long-standing tensions between the Gaza-based governing body and Damascus-sited political headquarters.

In May, Damascus-based Hamas chief Khalid Mash’al said Hamas was willing to allow the PLO to negotiate with Israel for a limited period, prompting Zahhar and Ar-Rishiq to spar in the Arabic press over who can speak for the movement – Gaza or Damascus.

On Wednesday, the latest installment saw Zahhar tell London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, “we do not believe that these negotiations will give us the minimum level of the Palestinian people`s legitimate demands and rights. They are suspended, and a waste of time.”

“They [Fatah] went to Madrid and signed the Oslo agreement without consulting anyone, and we [Hamas], on our side, do not bear the responsibility for the consequences of the failure of the PA-Israel negotiations.”

But he downplayed the differences between the two party bases, saying “there are disputes inside the [Hamas] movement like disputes inside a family. However, they have never reached the level of conflicts or splits.”

Ar-Rishiq has also insisted that there is no conflict in the movement.

Zahhar told the paper that the reason he was absent from politburo meetings in Damascus was prior engagements that were keeping him in Cairo.

Yet in the same interview, he questioned Ar-Rishiq’s position where the leader had defended Mash’al against him.

Zahhar, having briefed Jerusalem-based Al-Quds newspaper that Mash’al’s statement on negotiations did not represent Hamas' position, and later accusing the leader of "speaking on his own," faced denials by well-known Mash’al ally Ar-Rishiq.

The Damascus-based figure told AFP that Ar-Rishiq’s statement was “untrue, and he doesn't represent Hamas' position.”

Ar-Rishiq continued: “His statements toward Mash’al are against the movement's strategy and as a leading figure he shouldn't say that.

"Zahhar knows that it is not his job to comment on Khalid Mash’al and the [Damascus-based] political office is the one that can deliver any clarifications or comments on any statement by Mash'al."

On Wednesday, Zahhar hit back at Ar-Rishiq, questioning whether his comments were “issued in agreement between Gaza and the West Bank?”

Zahhar said that Ar-Rishiq’s words do not represent the Hamas position inside Gaza.

Hamas leadership in Gaza and Damascus have clashed over policy before, including over the term of the proposed prisoner swap for Israeli soldier being held in Gaza, Gilad Shalit.

The dilemmas faced by the movement following unity with Fatah have seen policy struggles escalate, while the party tries to keep a unified face.
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