President Mahmud Abbas has hailed an “historic opportunity” for peace as Palestinians marked the third anniversary of the death of his iconic predecessor Yasser Arafat.
In a speech before tens of thousands of people in the West Bank political capital of Ramallah, Mr Abbas said he considered an planned peace meeting a “historic opportunity to turn a new page in the history of the Middle East”.
The United States is expected to host the international meeting in
Annapolis, Maryland later this year aimed at reviving the Middle East peace process after negotiations led by Arafat collapsed in 2000.
Mr Abbas has vowed to continue through negotiations the struggle for a Palestinian state his predecessor led for nearly four decades, but on the third anniversary of Arafat's death Palestinians are more divided than ever.
The commemoration of Arafat's mysterious death in a Paris hospital on November 11, 2004 sees the Palestinian Authority which he set up in 1994 in control of only scattered, autonomous areas of the occupied West Bank.
The Islamist movement Hamas, which opposed Arafat's policies during his lifetime, seized power in the Gaza Strip in mid-June after routing security forces loyal to his successor and the secular Fatah party he founded.
Fatah rally planned
Fatah plans to hold a large rally in the Gaza Strip in honour of Arafat today, after Hamas-run police broke up several small demonstrations and arrested a number of Fatah supporters on the day of the anniversary.
Three demonstrators were shot and wounded in a clash with the police in the Gaza refugee camp of Nusseirat, medical sources said.
Mr Abbas once again called on Hamas to hand back control of the volatile coastal strip and reverse what he calls its “military coup,” accusing the movement of betraying Arafat's legacy.
“You will not hide the truth of what you have created, the establishment of an isolated entity controlled by a faction that rejects democracy and the values at the heart of our modern struggle,” he said.
Hamas — which opposed Arafat's policies during his lifetime and vilifies his successor Mr Abbas — nevertheless praised the former leader.
“We often agreed with the president Abu Ammar and we often disagreed with him, but in spite of this we consider him a symbol of the Palestinian nation,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum told AFP.
Hamas has consistently opposed the planned peace conference, warning President Abbas against making concessions to Israel on core issues of the conflict — borders, refugees, and the fate of Jerusalem.
But on Sunday Mr Abbas vowed to hold fast to Palestinian “national rights, which are guaranteed to us under international law.”
His remarks came amid reports that negotiations ahead of the meeting – for which there is still no fixed date — have stalled following disagreements over a joint document that is expected to form the basis of future talks.
Palestinians have called for a document that addresses the core issues while Israel prefers a looser declaration based on the 2003 roadmap plan.
The internationally drafted roadmap calls on Israel to remove some West Bank settlements in exchange for Palestinians taking over responsibility for security, but has made no progress in the past four years.
Although Palestinians revere Arafat as the father of their cause, many in Israel and the West blame him for the outbreak of the 2000 Palestinian uprising and the demise of the last round of peace talks.
“Just as despots on other continents were mourned in the years immediately following their passing but later it was understood that they were a national tragedy, I believe the same will be the fate of Arafat,” Mark Regev, an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, told news agency AFP.
The precise cause of Arafat's death at the age of 75 remains a mystery.
Several Palestinian officials accused Israel of poisoning him but medical officials have never managed to confirm the cause of death.