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Hamas calls for end to pro-unity rallies

March 20, 2011 12:04 A.M. (Updated: March 21, 2011 10:49 A.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Hamas on Saturday called on protesters to end pro-unity rallies in the Gaza Strip.

Over the last week, hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Gaza City demanding an end to the division between Hamas and Fatah, and their governments in Gaza and the West Bank.

The March 15 movement, a coalition of Palestinian youth groups, organized the protests, also held across the West Bank since Tuesday. Protesters say they will continue to rally until the division ends.

Demonstrators in Gaza have faced a brutal crackdown by government forces, despite assurances ahead of the rallies that the Interior Ministry would protect the youth movement.

On Monday, Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh ordered the ministry to let the rallies go ahead without interruption, his office said in a statement.

But on Tuesday, security forces raided Gaza City's Unknown Soldier Square and forcefully evacuated protesters. Activists said government forces beat people with batons and set fire to tents that were set up by the demonstrators.

In a press conference Saturday, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum accused Fatah security men and affiliates of organizing the protests.

He said the rallies were "an attempt by groups of the former security departments affiliated with Fatah and those allied with it to create chaos in the street, taking advantage of and hiding behind calls to end the division."

Pro-unity protests were a "factional conspiracy to destroy stability in Gaza and disrupt efforts to achieve conciliation," he continued.

Protest organizers, who issued calls to demonstrate on Facebook and in universities, say the movement is not affiliated to any faction, and have resisted attempts by parties to hijack the rallies. The organizers demanded that only Palestinian flags were raised at the demonstrations.

Barhoum said protesters had achieved their aim to shake up the issue of conciliation, noting that President Mahmoud Abbas announced he would visit Gaza to hold unity talks.

After Abbas' announcement, protesters in Ramallah suspended a hunger strike, but said they would resume the strike if concrete steps to follow up the initiative were not taken. Meanwhile the rallies will continue until the division ends, the youth movement says.

Barhoum said parties were "exploiting the margin of freedom that is granted to them in Gaza to disturb our internal affairs."

He urged the Ministry of Interior to restore order to the Gaza Strip and to protect the interests of its residents.

Ma'an asked Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri if the ministry was ordered to use an iron fist against peaceful protesters who had not harmed public order or property.

"A day was set for the rallies and it was a positive one and ended peacefully," Abu Zuhri said.

However the rallies should not have continued after March 15, and would bring chaos back to Gaza if they did not stop, he added.

His stance was echoed by Barhoum, who said demonstrations would harm stability in the Gaza Strip.

Barhoum said Hamas was eager to reconcile with Fatah. He said the right atmosphere must be created to ensure Abbas' visit to Gaza was successful.

The president accepted an invitation from Haniyeh to hold unity talks in Gaza on Wednesday. He has not set foot in the enclave since Hamas ousted Fatah from the Gaza Strip in fierce clashes which neared civil war in 2007.

Since then, the Palestinian territories have been effectively split in two, with Abbas's rule confined to the West Bank.

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