RAMALLAH // Eyebrows could not possibly have been arched any higher than they were yesterday morning at a headline in an Israeli newspaper that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, was threatening to dismantle the Palestinian Authority should Israel release imprisoned Hamas politicians in exchange for a captured Israeli soldier.
With heightened tensions between Fatah and Hamas in recent days, the suggestion that Mr Abbas was somehow urging Israel not to release Hamas prisoners is sure to add fuel to the fire. The PA was quick to deny the report and an official at the centre of the story said the PA would seek legal advice to sue the Haaretz newspaper. Hussein al Sheikh, head of the PA's civil affairs department, told the local Ma'an news agency the story was fabricated to discredit the PA and exacerbate internal Palestinian tensions. The PA, he said, would look into the possibility of suing the journalist "who made up this lie about the president".
Mr Sheikh was mentioned in the report as the PA official who brought what was described as a "personal message" from Mr Abbas to an Israeli army general. Both Israeli and Palestinian analysts yesterday cast doubt on the veracity of the Haaretz report and suggested it was linked to the internal Palestinian tensions. "It is out of character for President Abbas to say such a thing," said Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian analyst. "I doubt if this report is correct."
Mr Jarbawi suggested the report was somehow planted in the Israeli media to exacerbate intra-Palestinian tensions. "Leaking this information, whether accurate or not, at this moment means that Israel wants the internal Palestinian conflict to deepen to distract the world's attention from the Israeli position in negotiations and thus secure an easy way out of negotiations at the end of the year without having to give up anything."
Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst, agreed that the message attributed to Mr Abbas seemed out of character. "I don't know if it's credible," Mr Alpher said. "But if it's true, Abu Mazen [Mr Abbas] is really throwing a spanner in the works for any prisoner exchange." Israel and Hamas are engaged in Egyptian-mediated negotiations over a prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured in Gaza in 2006. The Israeli government came under serious domestic criticism for agreeing to the terms of the recently concluded prisoner exchange with Hizbollah, complicating the Hamas negotiations.
The PA, meanwhile, has been critical that Israel will offer concessions to Hamas and Hizbollah but not the PA with whom it is supposed to be negotiating a peace deal. "It is because Israel does not want to reach a negotiated agreement," Mr Jarbawi said, "that it wants to undermine Mr Abbas to say there is no leadership with whom to conduct viable negotiations." Danny Rubinstein, an Israeli journalist and former Haaretz columnist, said the report was "a mistake".
"There is no chance that any Palestinian will tell Israel not to release prisoners," he said. "This is not a credible story, not at all." Among Hamas officials, however, the report was received with less surprise. "The past practices of Mr Abbas proves that he is part of the siege imposed on Hamas and Gaza," said Yahyia Musa, a Hamas legislator from Khan Younis in Gaza. "Mr Abbas has never, in any of his many meetings with the Israelis, asked for the release of Hamas politicians, so this is nothing new."
Tensions between Fatah and Hamas have spiked in recent days after a bomb blast on Friday near a Gazan beach killed five Hamas members and a child. In Gaza, Hamas has been rounding up members of Fatah, while in the West Bank the PA has responded by arresting Hamas activists. In a press conference on Tuesday, Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, warned that a "new intifada" could erupt in the West Bank should arrests in the West Bank not end and described them as reflecting "the nature of the role of the PA security apparatuses in serving the security of the occupation".