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Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian President: Peace Better Than Settlements

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian president on Thursday appealed to Israelis to choose peace over settlements, saying that opportunities for a peace deal must not be wasted.

Mahmoud Abbas spoke to thousands of flag-waving supporters at a rally in the West Bank, marking the sixth anniversary of the death of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

Abbas' bitter political rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, suppressed all Arafat commemorations in the Gaza strip, a sign of the deepening political rift despite renewed attempts by the two sides to reconcile.

Washington launched Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in September, but negotiations foundered a month later when Israel resumed building new homes for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories the Palestinians claim for a future state. The Palestinians say they won't resume negotiations until all building stops. The United States has so far failed to broker a compromise.

About halfway through his speech Thursday, Abbas sent an appeal to the Israelis, urging them not to waste peace opportunities.

"I now turn to the Israeli people," he said. "I hope they will hear us – those who believe in peace, if they exist."

"Making peace is more important than settlements," he said. "A comprehensive and fair peace is more precious than anything else."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he won't renew a 10-month ban on construction in West Bank settlements that expired in September and that he will not curb building in east Jerusalem. This week, Israel's announcement that it is moving ahead with plans for 1,300 new apartments for Jews there set off a harsh public exchange with the U.S.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Thursday said he would oppose slowing construction in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their future capital. "We will not accept any (building) freeze, not for three months, not for two months and not for one day," he said.

In Gaza, Hamas police on Thursday broke up a private screening of a documentary about Arafat's life, participants said.

Palestinian lawmaker Ashraf Jumma said police cut the electricity to his office and detained a number of the more than two dozen attendees, including journalists. Some news photographers were forced to show their footage to police and were released only after promising not to air it.

Hamas officials declined to comment.

Hamas has banned commemoration of Arafat's death since it seized control of Gaza in 2007 from forces loyal to Abbas. Since then, Abbas' Western-backed Palestinian Authority has governed only the West Bank. Repeated efforts to reconcile the groups, including a high-level meeting in Syria this week, have failed.

The Foreign Press Association, which represents journalists from international news organizations covering Israel and the Palestinian territories, condemned the detentions.

"This is the latest in what seems to be a systematic campaign by Hamas to harass and intimidate journalists," the association said in a statement. It called on Hamas to respect press freedom.


Ibrahim Barzak contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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