Abbas calls for peace at swearing in
Published: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 1:44 a.m.
RAMALLAH, West Bank - Mahmoud Abbas extended his hand in peace to Israel as he was sworn in as the new Palestinian leader Saturday, but he faced a series of crises that imperiled those fledgling moves and raised questions about the elections that brought him to power.
Israeli army fire killed eight Palestinians in the Gaza Strip a day after Israel cut all ties with Abbas until he reins in militants. The boycott came after six Israelis were killed during an attack at a Gaza cargo crossing this week.
Also, 46 election officials resigned Saturday over alleged irregularities in the Jan. 9 balloting that gave Abbas a landslide victory with more than 62 percent of the vote.
In his inaugural speech, Abbas condemned violence, urged an immediate cease-fire and said he was extending Israel his hand in peace.
Officials in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office called the speech disappointing, saying it did not define how Abbas would end attacks on Israel.
Abbas made only vague mention of how he would deal with the violent groups that are dampening the new optimism for peace that followed the Nov. 11 death of Yasser Arafat.
Many wondered whether the window of opportunity created by Arafat's passing was already beginning to close.
Despite the rough start, however, Abbas made a direct appeal to the Israeli people, telling them, ''We are two peoples destined to live side by side.''
Abbas placed his hand on the Quran during a brief swearing-in ceremony before several hundred dignitaries at Ramallah's shell-scarred Muqata building, where Arafat spent his last years as a virtual prisoner.
Abbas promised to be faithful to the Palestinian dream of establishing a state and demanded an end to the Israeli occupation.
At the same time, he condemned violence by both sides, saying it ''does not help bring about the calm needed to enable a credible, serious peace process.''
''Our hand is extended toward an Israeli partner for making peace,'' he added. ''But partnership is not through words but rather deeds.''
In his speech, Abbas made no reference to Israel's decision Friday to suspend contacts until he takes action against the armed groups.
''We were very disappointed with the speech,'' said David Baker, an official in Sharon's office. The speech ''did not provide clear and definitive steps to prevent terror being waged against Israel.''
Abbas has said repeatedly that he prefers to co-opt the militants rather than crush them. If he fails to end their violence either through negotiations or a crackdown, however, there is little hope for a renewed peace process after four years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.
Reacting to Abbas' speech, militant groups sent mixed messages, saying they reserve the right to continue attacks but also indicating they might be ready to reach a deal with the new Palestinian leader.
Thursday night's Gaza attack may have reflected militants' desire to prove their strength and compel Abbas to take them into account as he begins his tenure.
The militants themselves, however, insisted the action was in response to continued Israeli offensives, which have not ceased despite a thaw in Israeli-Palestinian relations after Arafat's death.
''Regarding the issue of resistance, it will continue until the Israeli attacks come to an end and its army gets off our land,'' said a spokesman for the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group with ties to Abbas' Fatah movement. The spokesman only gave his name as Abu Mohammed.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat described Abbas' speech as an olive branch to the Israelis.
''I hope they will have listened carefully and they will reconsider their position and come back to the negotiating table,'' Erekat said.
Abbas' difficulties were compounded Saturday when 46 members of the Palestinian election commission, including its top managers, resigned.
They said they had been pressured by Abbas' campaign and intelligence officials to abruptly change voting procedures during the election - including keeping polls open longer and allowing voters to cast ballots in any location, not just their hometown - to give Abbas supporters more opportunities to vote.
The resignations raised questions about the vote, though the officials who quit said the alleged irregularities did not fundamentally affect the final tally.
The commission members said they hoped the resignations would serve as a warning that the irregularities, which apparently included gunshots ringing out at the election commission as the vote was going on, could easily be repeated in legislative elections scheduled for July.
''I was personally threatened and pressured,'' said Ammar Dwaik, the commission's deputy chairman. ''I am therefore announcing my resignation publicly, so that everyone knows that in the upcoming legislative election, this could happen again.''
Near the Gaza-Egypt border, Israeli machine gun fire killed two Palestinians and wounded 10, including four children under age 16, hospital officials said. Two of those four youths were in critical condition.
The army said the Palestinians were in a forbidden area and three gunmen were in the crowd.
Footage shot by Associated Press Television News shows a number of youths, including one armed man, trying to place a Palestinian flag on an Israeli guard tower before the troops opened fire.
In Gaza City, Israeli troops moved into a neighborhood to stop what the army said was Palestinian rocket fire on the nearby Jewish settlement of Netzarim. Five Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, witnesses said. The army said troops shot at militants who fired anti-tank rockets.
In a third incident after nightfall, troops spotted two armed men crawling toward an army post in southern Gaza, the army said. The soldiers opened fire, killing one man. The second gunman escaped.
The Islamic Jihad claimed the dead gunman.
Later, a 7-year-old Israeli boy was seriously wounded when a mortar shell hit a house in Netzarim.
Separately, an Israeli woman was seriously wounded when a homemade rocket fired from Gaza hit the nearby Israeli town of Sderot, medics said. The militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for both attacks.
''They attack us and we attack them,'' said Wafa Quran, a scarf-clad matron who works in a stationery store in Ramallah. ''We know now that nothing good comes from these clashes. With Abu Mazen, I hope we can enter a new period.''
Abu Mazen is a nickname for Abbas.
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