Islamic militants reject appeal for calm from Palestinian leader
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The Islamic Jihad militant group rejected a call Tuesday from Mahmoud Abbas to halt rocket attacks on Israeli towns, dealing a new blow to the Palestinian leader and prompting a new round of Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.In another setback for Abbas, a last-minute dispute within his ruling Fatah Party threatened to divide the movement a day before a key election deadline. The dispute between Fatah veterans and its “young guard” was the latest sign of disarray in the party, which faces a stiff challenge from the Islamic group Hamas in Jan. 25 parliamentary voting.Abbas traveled to Gaza on Tuesday for talks with the militant groups, in part to halt growing violence along Israel’s border with Gaza. Israel has put heavy pressure on Abbas to stop militants from firing rockets.Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, a participant in the meeting, said Abbas urged all Palestinian groups to honor a cease-fire reached with Israel in February.”We demand everyone be committed to the truce,” Erekat said. “We consider the truce a matter of high national interest.”But Islamic Jihad, which has been responsible for most of the rocket fire, rejected the appeal. Spokesman Khaled Batch accused Israel of violating the cease-fire, and said attacks were the only proper response. “I think the continuation of resistance is what’s better for the Palestinian people,” he said.New rocket fire was reported in southern Israel late Tuesday, and the army quickly responded with an airstrike on a suspected launch site in northern Gaza. There were no reports of injuries.Since Israel’s withdrawal in September from the Gaza Strip, militants have continued to fire homemade rockets into southern Israel. Although the rockets are notoriously inaccurate, more Israeli towns, including the city of Ashkelon, are in rocket range now that Israel is out of Gaza.Israel has responded with numerous airstrikes on suspected launch sites in northern Gaza. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has approved a buffer zone in northern Gaza, although the army said it has not yet implemented the plan, which includes firing on anyone who enters the area.Late Tuesday, the Israeli air force dropped leaflets into northern Gaza, warning residents to stay out of areas used by militants to fire rockets.”Terror organizations continue to launch projectile rockets at Israeli territory from your neighborhoods,” the leaflet said. “Presence in areas used for projectile rocket launching puts your life in danger.”U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Israel had responded to attacks on its own territory.”What we would like to see is effective measures against such acts so that the measures Israel is taking are not necessary,” Ereli said.A spike in violence could undermine Abbas as Fatah gears up for the parliamentary election. Adding to his troubles, Fatah has been bitterly divided between party veterans and a young generation of activists demanding a bigger role in party decision-making.Abbas was racing to repair the rift ahead of a Wednesday deadline for the party to submit its final list of candidates for the parliamentary election.Two weeks ago, the young guard broke off from the party to protest Fatah’s slate of candidates and submitted its own list. Eager to bring the young guard back, Abbas agreed to redraw the party’s list of candidates, giving top positions to younger activists.A Palestinian court on Monday agreed to reopen the registration period, clearing the way for Abbas to present the new list. The court set Wednesday as the new registration deadline.But hours before the deadline, the simmering dispute erupted again. Members of the young guard accused Abbas of caving in to the old-timers and restoring them to top spots on the party list.”We received the final list but we totally disagree with it,” said Ahmed Ghneim, a leader of “Future,” the young guard’s breakaway faction. “Apparently there are parties within the Fatah leadership that don’t want to reach an agreement with Future.”Future officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of ongoing negotiations, said the faction was considering backing out of its agreement with Abbas. But officials from both sides said negotiations were continuing and they hoped to reach a compromise by Wednesday’s deadline.”It’s impossible to go to this election with two lists. There would be nothing worse for Fatah,” said Abbas Zaki, a party veteran and member of Fatah’s powerful central committee.Continued disarray in Fatah could be devastating to the party. A poll released Monday found that Hamas would win the most seats in the election if Fatah remains divided, while a unified Fatah would win the election.