Abbas pledges to seek peace with Israel

Palestinian Authority's new president calls for 'mutual ceasefire' and insists on implementation of 'road map' plan
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The Independent Online

Mahmoud Abbas, sworn in yesterday as the Palestinian president, pledged to seek a negotiated peace with Israel - less than 24 hours after Ariel Sharon's government decided to suspend all contacts with the Palestinian Authority he now heads.

Mahmoud Abbas, sworn in yesterday as the Palestinian president, pledged to seek a negotiated peace with Israel - less than 24 hours after Ariel Sharon's government decided to suspend all contacts with the Palestinian Authority he now heads.

Mr Abbas called for a "mutual ceasefire", and promised that the new Palestinian leadership was determined to fulfil its commitments under the internationally agreed "road map" to peace, which include "visible efforts" to halt militant violence. He said that he expected Israel to fulfil its obligations too.

The scale of the task confronting Mr Abbas was underlined by another day of bloodshed in Gaza in which seven Palestinians were killed. An Israeli woman was critically wounded last night by a Hamas Qassam rocket attack from Gaza on the border town of Sderot.

In his first speech as Yasser Arafat's successor, the new president did not refer directly to Mr Sharon's freeze on relations with the PA, ordered in response to the bomb and shooting attack that killed six Israelis on Thursday night at the Karni cargo crossing into Gaza. Israel claims that some Palestinian security personnel connived in the attacks, and says it will not resume contacts, which were to have included a meeting between Mr Sharon and Mr Abbas, until the President takes decisive steps to halt violence.

But in a reference to the Karni and other attacks by Gaza's militants, Mr Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, declared: "We condemn these actions, whether by the Israeli occupation forces or the reactions of some Palestinian factions." He is to visit Gaza this week and resume efforts to persuade the armed factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to halt the attacks. "This does not help bring about the calm needed to enable a credible, serious peace process," he said.

At a restrained ceremony packed with diplomats, clerics - Christian as well as Muslim - politicians and invited members of the public, Mr Abbas placed his right hand on the Koran as he swore: "In the name of God, the Great God ... I will be faithful to the Palestinian people ... and I will preserve and protect the interests of the ... people, the parliament and the constitution."

Mr Abbas's problems were compounded when five electoral commission members, and 41 other officials, resigned shortly after yesterday's inauguration - also attended by Mr Abbas's runner-up, Mustafa Barghouti - in protest at the pressure they came under to extend the voting period by two hours last Sunday.

While not suggesting that the move affected the result, critics accused Fatah of using the extra time to shore up the turnout for Mr Abbas. Ammar Dweik, the commission's chief executive, said it had been forced to extend the voting period but added: "The elections were free, fair and democratic despite those decisions."

Uncompromising on the basic principles of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital - and at least in name, the right of return for Palestinian refugees - twice in his speech Mr Abbas ruled out the kind of "interim" agreement that many around Mr Sharon would like, and insisted that he was seeking a "final status" settlement. Repeating his willingness to adhere to road map obligations, he said it was "not reasonable" that Jewish settlements, which the road map requires to be frozen, the separation barrier, and "closures, sieges and arrests" should continue.

But he said he would not use theoccupation as an excuse for not pressing ahead with political, economic and judicial reform. Nabil Amr, an ally of Mr Abbas, said last week that the President would be seeking a ceasefire from the factions "as the main priority" because it will "be the main card ... in his hand when he meets Ariel Sharon". Mr Abbas wants to achieve the ceasefire by negotiation and not by the civil war some Israeli ministers had wished on the PA.

Mr Amr, likely to play a key role in the new PA, said Mr Abbas would be ready to co-ordinate with Israel on its plan to disengage from Gaza "provided that politicians as well as security officials are involved in the talks, signifying a preliminary return to the 'road map'". He said: "We now have a new leadership. Sharon must find a new way of dealing with it. If he doesn't change, it won't just be the end of Abu Mazen, it will be the end of everything."

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