The British-based Viva Palestina convoy, which also included Turkish lawmakers and activists, entered Gaza after a tense standoff with Egyptian authorities. The members of the group scuffled with Egyptian police at the Mediterranean port of El Arish on Tuesday when Egypt refused to allow part of the convoy pass.
The Egyptian decision sparked tensions at the Gaza-Egypt border as well. One Egyptian border guard was shot dead and scores of Gazans were wounded when Gazan youths hurled stones across the border at the Egyptian security forces. Turkey earlier said the aid convoy should be allowed to reach Gaza. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has been in talks with his Egyptian counterpart to resolve the tensions with the aid convoy, which eventually reached Gaza on Wednesday evening.
Describing the clashes and the killing of an Egyptian border guard in a scuffle on the Gaza border on Wednesday as an “unfortunate incident,” Palestinian President Abbas accused members of the Viva Palestina aid convoy of being a “propaganda tool” for Hamas.
“Aid must be assistance only. Not a propaganda tool,” he said, lashing out at British MP George Galloway, who has been leading the convoy. “Egypt is a sovereign country and they [Egyptian officials] have every right to determine which route the convoy should take. But Galloway insisted on another route,” he said.
Abbas, speaking to a group of journalists in Ankara on Thursday following talks with President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, appeared to be very much concerned that the incident might damage the relations between Egypt and Turkey, both of which are heavyweights in the Middle East. “Turkish and Egyptian relations are excellent and we do not want any harm to come to them,” he underlined, warning that incidents like this might be used by third parties to derail the peace process in the Middle East. He further argued that Hamas might be using the issue of the border-crossing at Rafah as leverage to gain legitimacy on the international platform.
More than 500 international activists have taken part in the Viva Palestina convoy, bringing tons of humanitarian supplies, as well as vehicles, to Gaza. The group includes British, American, Jordanian and Turkish activists and lawmakers, including Murat Mercan, the chairman of parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had talks with Turkish leaders, including President Abdullah Gül, on Wednesday.
Turkish leaders who met with Abbas called for an end to the conflict between the rival Palestinian groups. “We will celebrate here once you end your disputes,” Prime Minister Erdoğan told Abbas at their meeting on Wednesday, according to the Anatolia news agency.
Abbas said on Thursday that he asked Turkish officials to talk to his bitter rival Hamas in order to convince the Islamist group to accept an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal. “Turkey should talk to Hamas and do everything possible to convince them to take part in elections as a way of achieving reconciliation and unity in Palestine,” he said in response to a question posed by Today’s Zaman.
“We agreed to sign a reconciliation deal in Egypt, but Hamas later refused to sign the agreement, asking for several reservations and amendments to be considered,” he charged, stressing that Hamas is fearful of holding elections in the Gaza Strip, which it rules, out of concern that it may lose out to the Abbas-led Fatah movement. He claimed that when Egypt sent the deal to be signed by both parties they said not to ask for any amendments to it. “Hamas came to power through free and fair elections. Why is it that they are afraid of holding another one?” he questioned.
“There is the need to hold elections and Hamas should not be allowed to disrupt democratic life,” Abbas said. “We believe in democracy. Hamas does not. If you are looking for a pre-determined election result, then this is certainly not a democracy,” he added. The Egyptian compromise proposal calls for elections to be held in June when Abbas’ extended term ends.
The reservations of the Islamic Hamas movement, which took control of Gaza by force in 2007 after the coalition between Fatah and Hamas broke down, involve security matters, the date of the elections and the reform of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Hamas forced Fatah security forces out of the Gaza Strip after it won the 2006 elections. Its parliamentary term ends in January 2010 but Hamas refuses to heed Abbas’ calls for elections unless political unity is restored in the West Bank, where Fatah holds sway.
Abbas lambasted exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal for exploiting religion for political purposes. “In terms of religion, there is no difference between us and Hamas as we are both servants of God and adherents of Islam,” he said, adding, however, that the Hamas leaders are exploiting Islam for their own ambitions.
Hamas protesters help a wounded youth during clashes with Egyptian security forces across the Rafah border gate on Wednesday. Abbas said the incident was “unfortunate.”
Abbas also dismissed rumors that Turkey was trying to impose its own will on the Palestinians to achieve reconciliation between rival factions in Palestine. “I met with Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and none of them hinted at any imposition of Turkey’s viewpoint on us,” he said, stressing that all talks were held in very candid and transparent manner and nothing was swept under the carpet. “Turkey wants to play a role in the Palestinian issue and we want that as well,” Abbas said, praising Turkish efforts to provide development assistance and establish industrial zones in the north and the south of Palestine.
Israel responsible for stalemate
The Palestinian president reiterated his position on the stalled Middle East peace negotiations, saying, “We are not asking for any new preconditions on the resumption of talks.” He accused hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of creating obstacles to future talks. “First of all, settlements are not frozen, despite Israel’s claims. Second, Netanyahu does not recognize the legitimacy of the talks and has declined to publicly endorse the two-state solution,” Abbas said.
Abbas also dismissed reports which claimed that he failed to back Richard Goldstone’s report on Operation Cast Lead in which the chair of the UN fact-finding mission accused Israel and Hamas of human rights violations and war crimes during the three week offensive in Gaza. “I endorsed Goldstone’s report and backed the resolution that was brought before the UN Human Rights Council,” he underlined.