Tension rises as Hamas threatens fresh bloodshed

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The Independent Online

Israeli police and ambulance services were on high alert in Jerusalem yesterday after receiving a tip-off that two militants were on their way to carry out a suicide bombing on the eve of the Middle East summit in Annapolis, Maryland.

Armed police patrolled the city, set up checkpoints around it, and closed a bridge to the West Bank after Hamas, which was not invited to Annapolis, threatened a new wave of violence. Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy director of the Islamic movement's political bureau in Damascus, said on Saturday: "The stage that will come after the Annapolis conference will be an escalation in operations of armed resistance of all kinds and methods in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip."

Palestinian and Israeli analysts expected a weakening of public confidence in Hamas after Arab League foreign ministers voted in Cairo on Friday to attend the summit. A decision yesterday by Syria, Hamas' staunchest Arab ally, to send its Deputy Foreign Minister, was seen as a particularly damaging blow.

Khalil Shikaki, a leading Palestinian pollster, foresaw at least a temporary weakening of Hamas' appeal as a result of the Arab League decision, but cautioned that a lot would depend on the outcome of the conference.

"The mere holding of a conference with Arab participation isn't going to have a lasting impact," he said, "unless it actually succeeds in producing a change of the environment of the Palestinians. If it doesn't, the people will say Hamas was right and the conference was a show."

Dr Shikaki's most recent polls register a decline in support for Hamas and an increase in support for Mahmoud Abbas' rival Fatah, particularly since Hamas gunmen seized control of the Gaza Strip in June. Fatah led by 48 per cent to 31 per cent for Hamas, he reported. That was a much bigger gap than at any time since the Hamas election victory in January 2006. The swing was as pronounced in Gaza as in the West Bank. "As far as the public is concerned, Hamas is bleeding," Dr Shikaki said. "The main reason is that the public has been shocked by what it did in Gaza. Hamas no longer occupies the high moral ground. The public is a lot more willing to buy into the views of Mahmoud Abbas."

But Sami Abdel Shafi, a Gaza political commentator, feared there may be a renewal of violence between the Palestinian factions. Hamas, he suggested, had committed a mistake by writing off the summit.

"This carries the risk of further agitation of the public in the Gaza Strip" he said. "People will become more frustrated, and that could lead some to be more extreme when they see the leadership predicting the failure of a summit that's meant for peace."

The developments came as Israeli troops yesterday shot dead six Palestinian gunmen. Three were killed as they approached the border fence in northern Gaza. The other two were hit when they came close to soldiers operating near a refugee camp inside the strip. On the West Bank, troops killed a wanted man in Tulkarm.