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Hamas supporters protest talks

The Baltimore Sun

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Excluded from the Middle East peace conference in Maryland, Hamas yesterday summoned tens of thousands of its followers in the Gaza Strip to protest the gathering and reject any agreements that might grow from it.

Demonstrators chanted "We will never recognize Israel!" and called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a "traitor" and "collaborator" for attending the U.S.-sponsored meeting.

The protest was one of several this week by Palestinians and Israelis opposed to the peace conference. In the West Bank town of Hebron, a demonstrator was shot and killed yesterday as Palestinian security forces dispersed a small crowd, although it was unclear who shot him. Palestinian police also acted with force to prevent demonstrations in Ramallah, clubbing and arresting protesters before they could gather.

A night earlier in Jerusalem, the main Jewish settlers' group in the West Bank called together several thousand Israelis to protest against conceding any part of the holy city to the Palestinians.

The Bush administration hopes that an agreement reached yesterday in Annapolis to begin substantive talks between the Israelis and Palestinians will jump-start a peace process stalled for nearly seven years.

But Hamas leaders in Gaza belittled the gathering as only chipping at the edges of long-standing concerns of Palestinians, such as their claim of Jerusalem as the site of their future capital.

"We reject Annapolis and its results," Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, said in televised remarks before the rally. "We will stand against any attempt to harm or dismantle the resistance."

Hamas, feeling increasingly isolated, is poised to play the spoiler if a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process gets legs. Although the radical Islamist group risks being pushed further to the margins, it stands to gain if Israel and the moderate Palestinian leadership fail to convert the staged cordiality of Annapolis into serious peacemaking.

Security officials in Israel had been on heightened alert out of concern that Hamas would seek to sabotage the peace gathering by launching an attack in Israel or the West Bank, but the group's leaders said the conference was doomed to fail on its own.

Hamas leaders were dismayed by the broad Arab participation in the Annapolis conference and especially by Syria's decision to attend. For Hamas, Syria's presence was a worrisome sign that more Arab nations were easing closer to normal relations with Israel.

"They are actually more worried by the Arab participation in the conference than the Palestinian Authority's participation," said Bassam Nasser, a Palestinian analyst in Gaza City.

Hamas has been in sole control of the Gaza Strip and its 1.4 million residents since June, when its forces routed fighters from Abbas' Fatah party. Abbas, a moderate supported by the United States, now governs only the West Bank.

Relations between the two factions have grown more bitter since then. Two weeks ago, at least seven people were killed when Hamas police fired on a Fatah rally in Gaza City.

Still, it would be difficult for Abbas to make good on a peace deal with Israel unless Hamas goes along or is vanquished. Indeed, Israel's demand that the Palestinians take aim against armed militants applies to the Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank.

Rushdi abu Alouf and Ken Ellingwood write for the Los Angeles Times.

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