Gaza protests stretch into a seventh day

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 21, 2011 

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Inspired by the "Arab Spring" revolutions across the Arab World, Palestinians protested for a seventh straight day Monday in both the West Bank and Gaza in an effort to force their divided leaders into reconciling with one another.

Despite a violent crackdown on protests in Gaza, students gathered at several universities and foreign news organizations filmed the protests. Over the weekend, Hamas supporters attacked the Gaza offices of several news organizations.

The protests began March 15, when more than 10,000 people gathered in Gaza and several thousand, in the West Bank in a coordinated effort to demand reconciliation between the Fatah party, which governs the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza. The two sides broke in June 2007 after Hamas violently seized control of Gaza and routed Fatah forces.

Protest leaders say they want the two sides to agree to new elections in September.

"We want to end the internal split among Palestinians so that we can move towards unity and bring all of us closer to liberation," said Hisham Dwaikat, one of the protest leaders. He added that Palestinians aren't seeking to overthrow the current leadership, but rather to unite it.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already said that he will travel to Gaza to hold a direct meeting with Hamas over reconciliation. An aide to Abbas said that "preparations" were being made for such a visit, and that Hamas was "considering the proposal."

Demonstrators in Gaza, however, express skepticism over whether reconciliation is possible.

"Hamas might say publically that they will meet with Abbas, but their action against the protesters shows they are not really interested," said a demonstrator who identified himself only as Mohammad because Hamas has been cracking down on protesters.

More than a dozen protesters were seen being taken away in ambulances after a protest this weekend, though medical authorities would not confirm that there were injuries. Websites dedicated to the protests linked to videos and photographs showing plainclothes police officers wielding clubs and sticks against protesters.

Foreign news organizations, including the Reuters news agency, CNN, and the Associated Press complained that Hamas supporters had broken into their offices and seized video of the protests. Hamas denied the charge and said there'd been a "mistake."

The rift between Hamas and Fatah is a major obstacle in peace talks to establish a Palestinian state. European leaders have joined the U.S. in shunning Hamas over its refusal to adopt key principles, including recognizing past peace treaties with Israel.

It's still unclear what a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation would mean to the billions in aid money that European and U.S. aid organizations now give the Palestinian Authority government each year. Such aid might be reconsidered should Hamas be incorporated into the Palestinian Authority.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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