Blair backs Abbas plan amid Gaza violence

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair launched an effort yesterday to secure international backing for the Palestinian President's high-risk plan to call fresh elections in the hope of dislodging Hamas from political power and lifting the Western blockade of Gaza and the West Bank.

Mr Blair went out of his way to praise President Mahmoud Abbas's "landmark" announcement of the plan as the ceasefire between Hamas and the president's rival Fatah group came under renewed strain in a still-tense Gaza Strip with sporadic kidnappings and exchanges of gunfire.

In the most high profile kidnapping in the Gaza Strip so far, a senior Fatah official, the former prisoners minister Sufian Abu Zaydeh, was snatched by presumed Hamas militants.

Fatah sources said last night that one of the faction's activists had been killed and three others wounded in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza and blamed Hamas for the attack.

Mr Blair, whose officials are working on a putative new international aid package designed to strengthen Mr Abbas's beleaguered presidency, coupled his appeal with his strongest declaration yet that Hamas - elected in January - could no longer be allowed to "veto" efforts over "these coming weeks" to revive a Middle East peace process.

In remarks apparently directed at the international "quartet" of the US, EU, Russia and the UN, the Prime Minister told Mr Abbas "that my country's position and it should be the position of the international community" was that the President had "given leadership in this situation and shown you are determined to find a way forward".

While acknowledging that Britain was discussing with "international partners" the possibility of extending existing aid to the Palestinians, to relieve the impact of the boycott, British officials were guarded about the details. One possibility would be to extend the $329m Temporary International Mechanism (TIM), which currently makes payments to Palestinian Authority employees in health and education who are receiving no salary, to PA security forces. Besides injecting some new funds to the Palestinian economy, the move would help to bolster security forces loyal to Mr Abbas.

Another option apparently under discussions is to channel some social and economic funds through the President's office.

Although neither Mr Blair nor the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, who met last night, gave details the two men were understood to have discussed possible ways in which the $65m per month of taxes that Israel has owed to the Palestinians for the past 10 months could be remitted - possibly through the TIM or Mr Abbas's office - while bypassing the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Mr Olmert said Mr Blair had put forward a number of "interesting ideas" and added: "We are certainly looking for ways in which the funds we hold can go to the relevant addresses in accordance with the rules of the international community. Mr Olmert said there was "not a policy of withholding [funds] from the Palestinian people."

Mr Blair declared earlier: "I hope we will be in a position over these coming weeks to put together an initiative that allows that support for reconstruction and development and to alleviate the plight and suffering of the Palestinian people and also, crucially, give a political framework to move forward to a two-state solution."

Mr Abbas strongly reaffirmed his intention to hold elections, declaring: "I am determined to go back to the people. We have been in a crisis for nine months. People cannot wait for long. People are suffering from the economic, social and security situation."

Mr Blair, who was accused by the Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum of "inflaming the political situation" by overtly supporting Mr Abbas, added: "If the international community really means what it says about a two-state solution and about supporting moderation then now is the time for the international community to respond to the position you have set out."

In Gaza, where Sunday saw one of the worst days of internal fighting in the wake of Mr Abbas's announcement, Alaa Yaghi, a Fatah parliament member, said that his brother had been kidnapped by Hamas in a "message to me and my movement."