Thousands of Palestinians Press Their Leaders to Reconcile

March 15, 2011 - 8:29 AM

Gaza City, Gaza Strip (AP) - Thousands of Palestinians thronged major squares in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on Tuesday to deliver an impassioned appeal to their leaders to end the long-running feud that has divided the Palestinian people between two rival governments.

Protesters waved the black, red, green and white Palestinian flag in their largest show of grassroots strength since a wave of democracy-fueled protests began rocking the Arab world in January.

The demonstrators on each side of the Palestinian divide hoisted banners urging their leaders to unite the government that split after Hamas militants seized control of Gaza in June 2007, leaving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah Party ruling only the West Bank.

"Unity is our way and liberation an end to the (Israeli) occupation is our goal," read one banner in Gaza City. Others grouped photos of the rival movements' late legendary leaders, Yasser Arafat of Fatah and Sheik Ahmed Yassin of Hamas.

"Our goal is national unity and an end to this dark chapter in our life," said Mohammed Sheik-Yousef, spokesman of the March 15 Youth, the group of Facebook activists who organized the rally.

Past reconciliation attempts mediated by Arab powers have failed repeatedly.

In Gaza City, the majority of the estimated 25,000 protesters who flocked to the Square of the Unknown Soldier waved Palestinian flags. But some held the green banners of Hamas, and some Hamas loyalists scuffled briefly with activists who wanted the event to be a show of unity, not partisanship.

Young Hamas supporters were most prominently represented in Gaza, but small groups loyal to Fatah and other small Palestinian factions were also out, as were Facebook activists.

Ihab Ghussein, spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Gaza, said in a statement that "our security forces will work to ensure the full protection of today's events and its noble goals."

In Ramallah, the seat of the West Bank government, some 8,000 demonstrators -- most of them university students and youths -- marched through a central square, waving Palestinian flags and calling for national unity. "Palestine first. Palestine second. Palestine third and forever," said one poster.

There were no flags connected to individual Palestinian factions in the West Bank rally, though many protesters wore black and white headscarves favored by Fatah supporters. Officials said Abbas instructed his forces to allow the demonstration to proceed peacefully.

Sama Abu Hussein, a 19-year-old student from Jericho, described herself as a political independent but said she heard about the rally from Fatah activists at school.

"I decided to come because the split is so ugly it is undermining our national cause," she said. "One demonstration will not end the split, but if we can continue, we might make a difference."

The division between the West Bank and Gaza -- territories located on opposite sides of Israel that would one day make up a Palestinian state -- is a major obstacle to Palestinian independence.

Abbas favors a peaceful settlement with the Israelis, though he halted talks late last year to protest Israeli settlement construction. Hamas has not renounced its commitment to Israel's destruction and opposes negotiations.

The pro-reconciliation demonstration originally was organized by independent activists on Facebook influenced by the changes sweeping through the region. But Fatah and Hamas quickly jumped on the bandwagon, and the two parties clearly dominated Tuesday's rallies.

It appeared unlikely the marches would bring the sides together because neither Fatah nor Hamas has showed much interest in relinquishing the power they have. But if the campaign gains strength, it could put pressure on the rival governments to start talking again.

Hamas, in particular, is waiting to see how the situation in neighboring Egypt will affect Gaza. The group is optimistic that the next Egyptian government will ease or lift a crippling blockade of Gaza -- a development that would strengthen Hamas and boost its position in future negotiations with Fatah.

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Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank.