By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA, Jan 30 (Reuters) - The Islamist Hamas group is calling for new leadership for Palestinians to replace the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) dominated by its arch-rival President Mahmoud Abbas and the factions loyal to him.
Claiming victory in a devastating 22-day war with Israel in which 100 Palestinians were killed for every Israeli who died, the militant group is reasserting control over the enclave and resuming its central political challenge to the moderate Abbas.
Several thousand Hamas supporters rallied in Gaza on Friday in support of the call to abolish the PLO, made two days ago by the group’s exiled leader, Khaled Meshaal.
Meshaal advocates a new umbrella body to represent Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and in the diaspora. His proposal was echoed in similar statements to cheering crowds on Friday by a senior Hamas political leader, Khalil al-Hayya.
In the first public appearance by a prominent Gaza Hamas leader since Israel’s attacked on Dec 27, Hayya said the PLO was "dead", and sent to the "morgue" by those who founded it.
"It is high time the Palestinian people have a new leadership. We are moving forward to shoulder the causes of refugees and Jerusalem. We will not cede our rights," he said.
"It is high time our people see a new, wise leadership that upholds resistance and the rifle."
Hamas, which rules 1.5 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, is pledged to continue fighting the state of Israel, which it does not recognise.
Western-backed Abbas, seeking to create a Palestinian state at peace with Israel, runs the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which is home to 2.5 million Palestinians and also heads the PLO.
He accused Meshaal of trying to "knock down a structure that was built 44 years ago".
"If he wanted to bring down the temple he would not be able to do it because not one of the Palestinian people or others would stand with him," Abbas told reporters in Ramallah where his dominant Fatah faction is seated.
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Fatah is the largest of the 11 factions which make up the PLO, which has signed a series of peace accords with Israel since 1993 aimed at establishing a Palestinian state.
Abbas was leaving on Friday for visits to European capitals, seeking diplomatic help in securing a durable ceasefire in Gaza and post-war reconstruction for the enclave, as well as support for Egyptian mediators seeking to reconcile Fatah and Hamas.
"If Israel wants peace, it has to withdraw from the Arab and the Palestinian land which it occupied in 1967," Abbas said.
"Then it will be recognised by 57 Arab and Islamic countries which offer their hands for a historic opportunity for peace. I think Israel should not miss this opportunity."
Hamas, by contrast, does not propose to recognise Israel at any point and is shunned by major powers engaged in the Middle East peace process for its refusal to renounce violence. Meshaal, the group’s top leader, lives in exile in Damascus. He and other leaders of the group had said Hamas could accept a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders, in return for a long-term truce with Israel.
Meshaal now says factions allied to his group have already begun discussions over the formation of a "national steering committee" to represent Palestinians everywhere.
"The PLO, in its current form, has become incapable of serving the Palestinian people and has become a tool to deepen divisions," he said in a speech in Qatar this week.
Hamas is the most powerful of the "rejectionist" front of Palestinian factions — which are based in Syria — and could aspire to dominate a new umbrella grouping.
Failure to resolve differences over the PLO in 2007 was a major cause of the brief civil war that ended in Hamas’s seizure of Gaza from the hands of security forces loyal to Abbas.
Hamas, which is not a PLO faction, had in the past demanded that the highest Palestinian decision-making body be restructured in a way that allows its participation as well as that of Islamic Jihad, another militant group allied to Hamas which also advocates the elimination of the state of Israel
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah)