Palestinians, Syria Agree on 'Coordination' As Violence Erupts
Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Several weeks of relative calm in the Gaza Strip ended with an explosion and gunfire on Tuesday.
One Israeli soldier died and four others were wounded in a bomb blast; and two Palestinian terrorists were killed by gunfire from Israeli troops.
The violence erupted one day after Palestinian leaders met with Syrian President Bashar Assad for the first time in years.
Hamas claimed responsibility for Tuesday's early-morning attack, in which an Israeli soldier and his bomb-sniffing dog were blown up while searching for hidden weapons in the northern Gaza Strip. Palestinians reportedly opened fire on Israeli forces who were evacuating wounded troops.
In the West Bank overnight, Israeli forces sealed two offices of the outlawed Dawa (Islamic Charity Fund) in the Hebron area. The offices, which are part of Hamas, provided financial assistance to arrested terrorists and the families of suicide bombers, the army said.
Dawa "uses the guise of charity funds to funnel money to terror," the army said in a statement.
Tuesday's violence in the Gaza Strip comes as Palestinians prepare for their scheduled January 9 elections.
PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) met with Syrian President Assad on Monday -- a meeting that reportedly ended decades of Syrian-Palestinian hostilities.
Even though Syria allows Palestinian terror organizations to operate in its capital, relations between Syria and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat had been strained for years.
Twenty years ago, Damascus backed an internal rebellion against Arafat. Syria also accused Arafat of betraying his people and the Arab world when he signed the Oslo Accords with Israel in the mid-1990s.
On Monday, both sides spoke about an agreement to coordinate future actions regarding the peace process with Israel.
According to the official Syrian news agency SANA, Assad stressed his support for the Palestinian people's "resistance and national unity in the face of the forthcoming requirements."
Consultation and viewpoints would be followed by coordination, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara said.
"The most important outcome of this visit was to set a firm basis for exchanging views that will lead to a serious coordination of stances on the peace process," said Nabil Sha'ath, Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who also attended meetings there.
Quoting an unnamed PA official, the Jerusalem Post reported that Assad agreed to a Palestinian request to re-open the PLO embassy in Damascus.
But Professor Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University said that while the talk about coordination was "symbolically important," it was something they had to say.
"Nobody is too serious about it," Zisser said. "[Bascially] they agreed not to interfere with each other."
Israel recently rebuffed Syrian overtures to re-open peace negotiations, saying that if Syria is serious about peace, it will close down the offices of about a dozen Palestinian terrorist organizations headquartered in its capital.
According to Shlomo Gazit of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, it is important to Abu Mazen that Palestinian groups in Damascus do not act up.
"Abu Mazen...has no chance of moving ahead [in the peace process] if violence continues," Gazit said. "He [had] to go there to put pressure on Assad to kick them [Palestinian groups] out."
Israel has accused Palestinian groups in Damascus of becoming more involved in directing and planning terror attacks against Israel.
According to Prof. Efraim Inbar of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, since Israel has put off Syrian overtures, being "less obstructive" on the Israeli-Palestinian track is one way that Syria can get closer to America.
Abbas is particularly eager to establish calm in the run up to Palestinian elections. However, he has not yet been able to gain an agreement from militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of which have called for a boycott of the elections.
At least 10 candidates are hoping to succeed Yasser Arafat as PA president, with top contenders being Abu Mazen, jailed West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, and his cousin, human rights activist Mustafa Barghouti.
According to a poll published on Monday by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, Abu Mazen holds a strong lead with nearly 40 percent of those polled saying they would vote for him, compared to nearly 22 percent for Marwan Barghouti and less than 14 percent voting for Mustafa Barghouti.
However, two other polls forecast a much closer race between Abbas and Marwan Barghouti.
Bir Zeit University in the West Bank showed 35 percent support for Barghouti and 34 percent for Abbas, while the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed Abbas with 40 percent support compared to Barghouti's 38 percent.
PA officials have criticized Barghouti for declaring his candidacy from prison after Fatah chose Abbas, who has the tacit support of the West, as its candidate. Some say he may drop out of the race.
The Palestinian Center for Public Opinion poll indicated that some 85 percent of Palestinians plan to vote in the elections.
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