July 2, 2005

Abbas invites militant groups into government

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hasinvited militant factions, including the Islamic group Hamas,to join his government before next month's Israeli pullout fromthe Gaza Strip, a Palestinian Authority official said onSaturday.

Israel condemned the idea, which would mark the first timearmed groups have been part of a Palestinian cabinet.

Israel and the United States have demanded Abbas disarm anddismantle militant organizations, as dictated by a U.S.-backed"road map" to peace.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said his faction, which hasspearheaded a suicide campaign against Israel and is sworn toits destruction, would discuss the offer and "announce itsdecision in suitable time."

However, Islamic Jihad leader Nafez Azzam said his group,which has also killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks, hadrejected the invitation, saying it "would not take part in aPalestinian government as long as (Israeli) occupation exists."

Samir al-Mashrawi, a Palestinian Authority negotiator andtop leader in Abbas's Fatah faction, said he had invited themilitant groups to discuss the formation of a unity governmentwhose prime agenda topic would be Israel's pullout plan.

"The offer was prompted by the need to have a nationalpartnership to shoulder responsibility in this very delicateand sensitive situation," he said, adding that such a movewould not affect an upcoming legislative election.

Hamas's popularity has grown during more than four years ofviolence, especially in Gaza, where it made a strong showing inmunicipal elections earlier this year. Hamas also plans tochallenge Abbas's Fatah group in the coming election.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israelsees the group as "part of the problem and not as part of anysort of solution" and reiterated Israel's demand that Abbasdismantle it.

"We believe that the best way to deal with Hamas is todisarm them, delegitimize them and disqualify them," Regevsaid. "Mr Abbas is committed to disarming all the terroristgroups -- we're hopeful that he will follow through on thiscommitment."

Israel is concerned Hamas will try to seize control of Gazaafter its planned evacuation of all 21 Jewish settlements inthe territory in August and has vowed it will not allow anypullout to occur under fire.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie announced a similarinvitation last week but Hamas and Islamic Jihad said they didnot respond to it because he had made his comments to reportersrather than to them directly.