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Hamas steps up verbal attacks

The Islamic Hamas rulers of Gaza are staging daily demonstrations against the Annapolis peace conference.

world Updated: Nov 26, 2007 23:22 IST

Israeli border guards shot two Palestinians and one of Gaza's most powerful figures accused the moderate Palestinian president of "treason" - the unfriendly local backdrop to the Mideast peace conference getting under way in the United States.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, about 15,000 Israelis gathered at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, to protest the conference, set to open in Annapolis, Maryland, on Tuesday. Many marched to a square near the residence of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a noisy demonstration.

Hardline Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, a former premier who is a leading candidate to return to the post, denounced the conference on Monday. "The Palestinians are not lifting a finger to stop terror or recognize Israel as a Jewish state," he told Channel 2 TV. "I see this summit as a continuation of one-sided concessions."

The Monday events showed that despite the desire of US President George W. Bush to forge a peace accord, both Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas face stiff opposition at home in trying to achieve that.

With Olmert and Abbas away at the conference, the Islamic Hamas rulers of Gaza are staging daily demonstrations against the Annapolis gathering and Abbas, restating their rejection of the existence of a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East. "The land of Palestine ... is purely owned by the Palestinians," Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said in a speech, referring to the territory that includes Israel. "No person, group, government or generation has the right to give up one inch of it." Speaking at a meeting of 2,000 activists from local militant groups, Zahar declared, "Anyone who stands in the face of resistance or fights it or cooperates with the (Israeli) occupation against it is a traitor," a clear reference to Abbas. Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas' forces in June, leaving him in charge of a pro-Western government based in the West Bank. Abbas' lack of control over Gaza has raised questions about his ability to carry out any future peace deal.

Ismail Haniyeh, head of Gaza's Hamas government, joined fellow Hamas leaders in signing a document Monday stating that Abbas has no right to make concessions.

"Any recommendations or commitments made in the conference that harm our rights will not be binding for our people," Haniyeh said. "It will be binding only for those who sign it." Israel has stepped up pressure on Hamas since the Gaza takeover, carrying out numerous airstrikes and ground operations to halt Palestinian attacks.

On Monday, an Israeli aircraft fired at a Palestinian squad firing mortar shells into Israel, the military said. Hamas said one member was killed in the airstrike, and medical officials said two other people were wounded.

Dozens of mourners chanting anti-Israel slogans marched through the streets, carrying the militant's body on a stretcher. A second died later of his wounds.

The military said soldiers also shot two Palestinians who approached Israel's border with Gaza. Such clashes are a near daily occurrence, alongside rocket barrages at Israel by Gaza militants. At the conference, Bush hopes Israel and the Palestinians will formally relaunch peace talks, which broke down in violence seven years ago. The sides hope to reach a deal within a year based on the "road map," a U.S. peace plan laying out a three-stage process for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israeli newspapers published what they said were details from the speech Prime Minister Ehud Olmert planned to deliver at the conference.

The Haaretz newspaper said the Israeli leader would call for progress in negotiations, but would also insist on an end to militant activity in the Gaza Strip as part of the first phase of the road map.

With Hamas firmly in control of Gaza, this demand could severely constrain future peace efforts. Abbas has virtually no control over Gaza militants who fire rockets and mortars into Israel. Recognizing this, he wants a deal to be implemented in the West Bank, and only later in Gaza after Hamas is out of power. Palestinian officials did not immediately react to the report.

First Published: Nov 26, 2007 23:08 IST