Abbas vows not to let Hamas keep armed forces in Gaza
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Abbas vows not to let Hamas keep armed forces in Gaza

PA president says he won't allow repeat of 'Hezbollah experience in Lebanon'; in rare admission, says Palestinian state not happening 'soon'

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Members of Hamas military wing attend a memorial in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on January 31, 2017, for Mohamed Zouari, a 49-year-old Tunisian engineer and drone expert, who was killed at the wheel of his car outside his house in Tunisia in December 2016.  (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)
Members of Hamas military wing attend a memorial in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on January 31, 2017, for Mohamed Zouari, a 49-year-old Tunisian engineer and drone expert, who was killed at the wheel of his car outside his house in Tunisia in December 2016. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that he would not be prepared to accept Hamas keeping its armed forces in Gaza like Hezbollah does in Lebanon and demanded  “full control” of the Strip, including over the border, security and all the ministries.

His statements came as his Fatah party and the Hamas terror group move ahead with attempts to form a unity government.  The Palestinian cabinet met in Gaza on Tuesday for the first time since 2014 in a further step toward the Palestinian Authority taking control of the territory.

“I won’t accept the reproduction of the Hezbollah experience in Lebanon” in Gaza, Abbas said in an interview late Monday with the Egyptian news station CBC, pointing to an early point of conflict with Hamas, which has vowed not to turn in its arms.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 20, 2017. (AP/Seth Wenig)

Abbas said that despite his “strong desire to see this reconciliation through,” this would not happen unless the PA “ruled the Gaza Strip just as it does the West Bank.”

“The border crossings, security, and all the ministries must be under our control,” he said several times.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (C) is surrounded by security as he waves following his arrival at the Erez border crossing in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on October 2, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS

Hamas, however, has said that it will not even broach the subject of dismantling its vast military wing during negotiations, leading some to believe the group was seeking to follow in the footsteps of the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, which is part of the government but retains its own army.

Abbas addressed this point specifically, saying, “I won’t accept the reproduction of the Hezbollah experience of Lebanon” in Gaza. He added that just as his security forces arrest those in the West Bank with illegal arms, the same would occur in Gaza.

He added that without Palestinian unity, “there is no Palestinian state.”

Fatah and Hamas have been at loggerheads since Hamas violently took control of the Strip in 2007, with the two groups operating separate administrations. They attempted to reconcile a number of times in the past but failed to do so.

Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has a reported 27,000 armed men divided into six regional brigades, with 25 battalions and 106 companies.

Masked youth cadets from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, march in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis on September 15, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

It has fought three conflicts with Israel since the terror group took control of Gaza.

Regarding the punitive measures Abbas levied against Gaza in April in order to force Hamas to cede control of the Strip, he said he was in “no hurry” to lift them.

He said the measures cut 22% of the PA’s funding to Gaza — a total of $1.5 billion US dollars — which affected the already dire electricity and water situation in the Strip. These steps would not be reversed until the PA was in full control of Gaza, he said.

Gaza today is mired in poverty, with unemployment approaching 50 percent and receiving just a few hours of electricity each day. Essential medicine is growing more scarce in the Strip, and clean water has become harder to access and more expensive.

Egypt has been a major backer for the current round of unity talks between Fatah and Hamas. The head of Egyptian intelligence Khaled Fawzy is expected on Tuesday to join a team of his generals already in Gaza to facilitate the talks.

In this context, Abbas said he would not allow any country to interfere in internal Palestinian affairs except for Egypt. Cairo, he said, is accepted as a mediator by both sides.

Palestinians gather at the Erez border crossing as Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s convoy arrives in Beit Hanun, in the northern Gaza Strip, on October 2, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Abbas noted that Hamas is still an “Islamist group,” while Fatah is a secular party. However, he said, the terror group still constitutes a “part of the Palestinian people,” and would be included in a Palestinian government as long as it agrees to uphold the policies of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is the largest Palestinian umbrella group. Abbas is the head of the PLO.

The PLO has recognized the State of Israel, while Hamas refuses to do so and continues to call for the Jewish state’s destruction.

On Monday, Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s envoy to the Middle East, said in a statement that while Washington welcomed the effort to put the PA back in control of Gaza, any resulting unity government “must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognition of the State of Israel, acceptance of previous agreements and obligations between the parties, and peaceful negotiations.”

Palestinian state won’t be formed ‘soon’

At the end of his interview on Monday, Abbas made a rare admission that an independent Palestinian state would not be formed “soon.”

He blamed this reality on the current government of the State of Israel, which he called “extremist” and “against peace.”

He said he was “optimistic” a Palestinian state would be formed, and that it is was currently being built “brick by brick.” He pointed to the recent entry of the PA into the international law enforcement agency Interpol.

Should Hamas join the PA, Abbas said the two sides would need to discuss the subject of negotiations with Israel.

US President Donald Trump reaches to shake Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s hand before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski)

Abbas, instead, highlighted the US efforts to jumpstart peace talks, adding that he has spoken on a number of occasions with US President Donald Trump, and will “continue to communicate with him until we arrive at shared thoughts.”

Abbas has called for presidential and legislative elections in the event reconciliation with Hamas becomes complete.

In a second interview with the Egyptian news channel ENT, when asked if he had any objection to Hamas running the PA government or the presidency, Abbas responded: “If Hamas succeeds in the legislative and presidential elections, I will wish them congratulations.”

He pointed to the fact that when Hamas won legislative elections in 2007, he allowed it to form a government.

When asked about Hamas’s refusal to recognize and negotiate with Israel, Abbas responded that the terror group has negotiated with the Jewish state in the past.

“We all negotiate will Israel…There are signed agreements between Hamas and Israel in the office of [former Egyptian President] Mohammad Morsi,” which were inked during a conflict between Hamas and Israel in 2012.

Abbas noted these agreements on borders, ceasefires and buffer zones “are still in place.”

Abbas said he didn’t want to say whether the US backs the reconciliation efforts with Hamas. However, Abbas said he believes the US “does not oppose what is happening.”

The PA leader said that when he met President Trump in New York last month, he thanked the US leader for his efforts regarding the reconciliation, and Trump responded, “You’re welcome.”

Abbas said this small response was enough to show that “the Americans are not against” the reconciliation.

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