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Hamas adds demands to alleged deal for safe passage of Fatah members

July 29, 2009 10:09 A.M. (Updated: July 30, 2009 1:56 P.M.)
Bethlehem – Ma’an – Hamas is now demanding the PA issue its members Palestinian passports in exchange for an assurance of safe passage from Gaza to Fatah’s Sixth Congress in Bethlehem next week, officials said on Wednesday.

Hamas added this request to its, central demand, the release of its members from prisons controlled by the Fatah-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank.

The new demand further complicates an already unclear situation around Fatah’s long-delayed conference.

Earlier on Wednesday it was announced that Hamas agreed to allow Fatah leaders from the Gaza Strip to travel to Bethlehem for the conference on 4 August following Tuesday promises from the movement to release 200 Hamas affiliates from West Bank prisons.

In a TV interview the Fatah-aligned Secretary General of the Palestinian President’s office, At-Tayyib Abdul Rahim, told Palestine TV that the PA security services prepared a list of 200 Hamas supporters detained in the West Bank who will be set free if Hamas allows Fatah leaders to travel to Bethlehem.

The reported agreement would have seen approximately 400 Fatah members leave Gaza for the party conference, the first in 22 years. With the addition of the passport forms later Wednesday, however, it is unclear whether or not the bargain will hold or be amended.

One senior Hamas leader, Salah Al-Bardawil, denied the deal, saying, “Hamas has not agreed that Fatah leaders can leave Gaza to partake in the sixth conference,” during an interview with Ma’an on Wednesday.

“Our conditions for passage of Fatah members out of Gaza are that all Hamas supporters detained by the PA in the West Bank must be released” Al-Bardawil said, and “Secondly, the PA must send the needed quantity of passport forms to the Gaza Strip.” He also noted Egypt was notified about these conditions.

A second senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud Az-Zahhar, furthered threats during a ceremony in Gaza City honoring the dead from the Zaytoun neighbor from Israel’s war on the area, saying “if Fatah continues its campaign against Hamas supporters in the West Bank,” no Fatah members will be allowed out of the Strip.

“We don’t want to break down their conference, the results of which we know in advance. We hope that the conference will be a success, but we will not allow anyone to take advantage of the conference to corrupt the security situation in Gaza,” Az-Zahhar added.

Fatah spokesman Fahmi Az-Za’arir responded to the ban by accusing Hamas of “blackmail.” He said Fatah would extend every effort to bring the Gazan members of the movement to the West Bank.

“The Fatah conference will be a historic event that will heal and solve many issues and also produce historic decisions,” he said.

“Hamas knows how important this conference is for Fatah and the Palestinian national movement,” the spokesman added.

Israeli restrictions

Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas personally followed up on the issue. The Fatah congress has been long in the planning and the final decision to hold the meetings in Bethlehem sparked angry comments from Fatah members who would be unable to attend from their places of exile. While Abbas has been working to secure Israeli permits for attendees, there is no guarantee that all members invited will be permitted to enter the West Bank.

On Tuesday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told officers at a National Security Academy's graduation ceremony, that “If the Palestinians could, they would overthrow Hamas, and believe me, one day they will," hinting at support for an economically-driven Fatah.

Netanyahu went on to elaborate the vision behind his policy of economic development, largely seen to be replacing the creation of a Palestinian state. An economic focus, he said, could "be successful in helping the Palestinian Authority advance in the direction that Dubai has, or whether it will revert to the ways of the regime in Gaza. I am not saying (the PA) will become Dubai tomorrow or the day after that, but it is headed in that direction. The Palestinian economy is growing at an annual rate of more than 7%, and it can grow at a much faster pace."

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