By Mai Yaghi (AFP) – Mar 15, 2011
GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories — Thousands of Palestinians rallied in Gaza City and the West Bank on Tuesday in a mass show of strength to call for an end to the division in their national movement.
But the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank rejected a fresh invitation from the rival Hamas rulers in Gaza to hold talks on healing the schism.
The largest demonstration was in Gaza City, where officials from the Hamas-run interior ministry said "tens of thousands" had packed into the city's Square of the Unknown Soldier.
As the protesters demanded that the warring Hamas and Fatah movements patch up their differences, Gaza's Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya publicly invited his Fatah rival, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, for "immediate" unity talks in Gaza.
"I invite the president, brother Abu Mazen (Abbas), and Fatah to an immediate meeting here in Gaza... to start national dialogue in order to achieve reconciliation," Haniya said in a live broadcast after an emergency meeting of his government.
But after a late-night meeting in Ramallah, the Fatah-dominated executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation rejected the offer, calling it an attempt to defuse the grassroots unity initiative.
"(The committee) rejects the repression of this movement under the pretext of leaving questions of unity to political leaders," it said in a statement, adding that the only solution lay in elections, reiterating remarks Abbas made earlier on Tuesday.
"I am with the people and in favour of going back to the people to put an end to the divisions through presidential and parliamentary elections," he said after talks in Ramallah with Cypriot President Demetris Christofias.
In Gaza City, demonstrators waving Palestinian flags yelled, "No to division!" and "Revolution, revolution until we end the division!"
The Gaza protests were marred by clashes between dozens of Hamas supporters and hundreds of others in which stones were thrown and three people were wounded, witnesses and an AFP reporter said.
Earlier, Fatah members locked horns with a group of Hamas activists carrying their own green flags and shouting slogans.
Later in the day, several thousand people left the main square to continue their demonstration, in a protest about Hamas and other political groups co-opting the movement, one of the organisers said.
They were dispersed by baton-wielding Hamas security forces.
During the scuffles an AFP photographer was assaulted by a plainclothes policeman.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Abbas's security forces arrested four protesters and another four people, among them two women, protest organisers said in a statement.
The rallies, called by the March 15 protest movement, were planned through Facebook by young activists demanding an end to the rift.
Throughout the day, around 7,000 people demonstrated in the West Bank, with around 3,000 in Ramallah, 2,000 in the northern city of Nablus and similar numbers in Hebron, AFP correspondents said.
"I'm not from Fatah or from Hamas, I came here with my friends to say enough of this division," said a 24-year-old student demonstrating in Nablus, who gave his name only as Sayed.
"We will stay here until the end of the split."
In Ramallah, demonstrators sang patriotic songs and waved Palestinian flags, but this protest was also marred by confrontations between supporters of different groups, marring organisers' attempts to keep the movement apolitical.
One student told AFP there would be no unity unless the politicians decided to abandon their entrenched positions.
"We as youth should participate in this event to make a big change, but we also can't stop the division if the politicians don't change," said Sama Musa.
The rivalry between Hamas and Fatah dates back to the early 1990s. It soured dramatically after the Islamist movement won elections in 2006 and, a year later, seized control of Gaza after deadly street fighting with Fatah.
Since then, the Palestinian territories have been effectively split in two, with Abbas's rule confined to the West Bank.
In Manara Square, a huge banner was plastered with the faces of dead Palestinians from all factions, including Yasser Arafat and Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, emblazoned with the slogan: "End the division!"
The March 15 movement was inspired by uprisings in the Arab world which brought down the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia and sparked the revolt in Libya.
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