By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
JERUSALEM, Nov. 27 -- Thousands of Hamas supporters rallied in the streets of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday against the U.S.-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, and a second armed Palestinian movement vowed to intensify its attacks on Israel, saying, "The only dialogue with the enemy will be with rifles and rockets."
The demonstration that filled Gaza City's wide central avenue, as well as gatherings in the West Bank, came a day after thousands of Israelis protesting fresh negotiations to create a Palestinian state marched from the Western Wall, the holiest place Jews can pray, to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's residence near this city's center.
Among the marchers were leaders of at least one party in Olmert's governing coalition, a sign of the political tremors likely to follow the start of the first Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in nearly seven years.
The street protests, which led to the death of one Palestinian in the West Bank, showcased the on-the-ground complexities awaiting Israeli and Palestinian leaders as they try to translate the pageantry of Annapolis into substantial peace negotiations in the months ahead. President Bush, who convened the Annapolis meeting amid low expectations here and in the occupied territories, has set a goal of a lasting peace agreement before he leaves office in January 2009.
Israeli and Palestinian rejectionists -- the term used to describe those who deny the other side's right to a state nearly six decades after Israel's founding -- have hampered past negotiations and worked to undermine efforts to implement the few agreements that have been reached.
But the hawks on both sides are particularly powerful at the moment given the political weakness of Olmert, who is under criminal investigation for alleged graft, ill with prostate cancer and still being criticized for waging a poorly conceived war in Lebanon last year, and of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president whose electorate is violently divided.
The two main territorial components of a future Palestinian state are split physically and politically. Abbas's Fatah party holds sway in the West Bank, in part because of the presence of the Israeli military, while Gaza is run by Hamas, which seized control of the strip in June after routing Fatah forces.
The Bush administration classifies the radical Islamic movement as a terrorist organization and excluded it from the Annapolis meeting, even though it was elected in January 2006 to lead the Palestinian government on a day-to-day basis. Hamas favors what it calls armed "resistance" to the Jewish state, rather than negotiations.
In speeches delivered in Gaza under a clear winter sky, Hamas leaders repeated warnings to Abbas not to concede anything in Annapolis, calling him a "collaborator" for attending the U.S.-sponsored conference.
"We reaffirm the legitimacy of resistance and support it as a natural right," Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister deposed by Abbas in June, told the rally. "We are sure that the Annapolis conference will not change the reality of history and geography."
Hamas is strongest in Gaza, an impoverished coastal strip of almost 1.5 million people whose Israeli-controlled border crossings have been sealed to all but emergency aid for months. But the movement also has a large following in the West Bank, where its members must operate more carefully for fear of arrest by Israeli soldiers.
Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in the fall of 2005, but its forces still push into the strip regularly in attempts to stop Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israel. In the past two days, six Hamas gunmen have been killed in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes and ground forces.
In a statement faxed to news agencies, the Popular Resistance Committees, an armed splinter group in Gaza, said Tuesday it would increase rocket attacks on Israel to protest the Annapolis meeting.
Israeli military officials said at least 10 mortar rounds had been fired into Israel in the past two days, although no injuries were reported.
Several hundred Palestinian demonstrators also assembled in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Hebron on Tuesday to denounce the Annapolis meeting. In Hebron, where Jewish settlements in the city center have been a source of political tension, Palestinian police fired on demonstrators, killing one Palestinian and wounding three others. The crowd of several hundred people in Ramallah, including some from Abbas's Fatah party, was dispersed quickly by Palestinian police using batons, tear gas and warning shots.
Israeli rejectionists, who fear losing Jewish settlements in the West Bank if a Palestinian state is created, have been more muted in their public criticism of the conference. Some analysts here say the reason is that Israeli settlers and their leaders believe the nascent peace process has only a slim chance of success.
Before the conference, Olmert and Abbas discussed in general terms the most complicated issues of the long conflict -- the Palestinian state's future borders; the right claimed by millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to homes inside Israel; and the status of Jerusalem, a city that both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. They reported no tangible progress.
"We're telling the Israeli government to not raise its hand to divide Jerusalem or to raise its hand against the settlements in Judea and Samaria," said David Rotem, a lawmaker from the party Israel Is Our Home, which is part of Olmert's coalition government.
Rotem participated in the march to Olmert's residence, along with about 10,000 other mostly young Israelis who believe God promised the Jewish people the West Bank, which they refer to by the biblical terms Judea and Samaria.
"We did not build these settlements in vain," Rotem said. "And we will not allow the Israeli government, the minister of defense or the prime minister to freeze construction."
Special correspondents Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and Islam Abdelkarim in Gaza contributed to this report.