GAZA (Reuters) - The Hamas Islamist government in Gaza said it had declined an invitation to a meeting of 120 developing nations in Tehran this week, heading off a potential confrontation with rival Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.
Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, had accepted the invite over the weekend but backtracked on Sunday “in order that the participation would not be an introduction to deepening a Palestinian, Arab and Muslim division over the Palestinian cause,” said spokesman Taher al-Nono.
Iran’s call for Hamas to attend the annual Non-Aligned Movement conference had infuriated the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA), which sees itself as the sole legitimate representative of all Palestinians.
PA leader President Mahmoud Abbas has been at loggerheads with Hamas since his forces lost control of Gaza in a brief 2007 war with the Islamist movement. He has since governed only in the occupied West Bank.
Abbas had also accepted an invitation to the conference. But his aides had earlier mulled cancelling the trip if Haniyeh attended.
“We won’t allow Palestinian representation to be ripped up - we won’t allow anyone to do this,” Abbas told a cheering crowd at a civic event in the West Bank capital of Ramallah earlier on Sunday.
“We are capable of looking after ourselves and our dignity, and we want unity and want to return to this unity,” he added.
The Non-Aligned Movement conference, a grouping of developing nations founded during the Cold War, has emerged from obscurity with this year’s summit - largely thanks to the fact that its revolving leadership has passed to Iran.
Iran hopes to earn diplomatic kudos by hosting the summit from August 29-31 at a time when the West is seeking to cripple its economy and isolate it diplomatically over its disputed nuclear programme.
Israel and the United States have already exhorted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to cancel his planned attendance because of Iran’s involvement.
Egypt, last year’s chair of the organization, will be represented by newly-elected president Mohamed Mursi. His Islamist affinity with Hamas along with rising militancy in the Sinai peninsula adjoining Israel has strained Egyptian-Israeli relations.
Reporting By Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Noah Browning in Ramallah