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Dozens disrupt Palestinian protest of peace talks

By Mohammed Daraghmeh
Associated Press / August 26, 2010

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — Dozens of men believed to be plainclothes Palestinian security personnel broke up a gathering of activists opposed to new Mideast peace talks yesterday, reflecting the Palestinian leadership’s sense of vulnerability as it prepares to launch negotiations with Israel next week.

President Mahmoud Abbas has come under widespread criticism at home. He’s accused of caving in to US pressure to join the negotiations without an Israeli pledge to freeze all construction on land claimed by Palestinians. The attempt to stifle dissent appeared to reflect concerns that the unhappiness could escalate into public unrest.

In Ramallah, about 200 activists from various opposition groups had gathered in a meeting hall to issue a declaration opposing the peace talks when dozens of young men in the audience stood up, hoisted posters of Abbas, and shouted slogans in support of the Palestinian leader.

The meeting quickly broke up in a confused scene of shouting and finger-pointing, without any resolution being approved.

One of the organizers, independent lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti, and activists from other factions said the young age of the men, the well-organized nature of the protest, and the fact that uniformed police officers were waiting outside to question activists showed that the men were security officers. The crackdown was a “stark violation of human rights by the Palestinian Authority,’’ Barghouti said.

Adnan Damiri, a spokesman for the Palestinian security forces, denied the assertion, but the official Palestinian news agency WAFA said Abbas has ordered an investigation into the incident.

One human rights group, Al-Haq, said police grabbed one of its members and confiscated his camera and injured another who came to his aid.

“Today’s incident is a further example of the increasing climate of violence and intimidation that is effectively transforming Palestinian society into a police state,’’ the group said.

Abbas is under fire from many Palestinians for agreeing to speak directly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, especially without winning a complete halt to Israeli settlement construction.

Many Palestinians fear that the Americans are biased toward Israel and that Abbas will come away from the negotiations empty-handed.

A 10-month slowdown in West Bank settlement construction by Israel is set to expire at the end of September, and the government is divided over whether to extend it. The Palestinians have warned that they will pull out of the new negotiations if building is resumed.

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