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Hamas encourages Fatah role in government as unrest spreads

JERUSALEM—Hamas' top leader said Saturday that his group was in no hurry to negotiate with Israel but said Hamas still hoped to include Fatah members in a future Palestinian government.

Khaed Mashaal's statements to reporters in Syria came as unrest in the wake of Hamas' stunning political victory in last week's Palestinian elections spread to the West Bank as hundreds of Palestinians loyal to Yasser Arafat's demoralized Fatah party marched on the seats of power to vent their outrage.

Leaders from both rival political groups appealed for calm amid concerns that their supporters would try to settle their scores in violent clashes.

Speaking in Damascus, Mashaal said that Israel's threat to cut off talks with any Palestinian government led by Hamas, which introduced suicide bombing into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was hollow. He said peace talks with the last two Palestinian leaders—the late Yasser Arafat and current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas—had gone nowhere.

"We do not feel guilty that Israel does not intend to deal with us because it refused to cooperate with Abbas and Arafat," said Mashaal. "Israel does not offer anything at the moment."

Fatah leaders in the West Bank and Gaza have said they will not join a Hamas-led government, but Mashaal said Hamas hoped they would.

He also said Hamas might extend a yearlong truce with Israel, even though the truce "was not an encouraging experience."

And he attempted to reassure members of the Palestinian Security Forces by telling reporters that Hamas militants could be transformed into a new Palestinian army alongside existing security forces.

The future of the Palestinian security forces and Hamas' armed wing are likely to be the subject of tense negotiations. Fatah leaders are vowing to retain control over the security services, while Israel and the United States are vowing not to talk to the new government until they disarm the Islamist militants.

Currently the Palestinian Authority is dominated by Fatah members and some 58,000 serve in the security services.

Hamas' overwhelming victory—it won at least 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian legislature—has created widespread anxiety among Fatah members who have relied on their political connections for secure paychecks that are now in jeopardy.

Angry armed Fatah members marched through Gaza City for a second straight day. Demonstrators briefly stormed the parliament building to demand that their political leaders resign because of their humiliating defeat to Islamist militants in last week's legislative election.

Leaders of both groups called on their members to avoid clashes.

"We will do our utmost with Hamas leadership to avoid any provocations and to ensure security, law and order," said outgoing Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed Najib in Ramallah and Mahmoud Habboush in Gaza City contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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