New Palestinian Cabinet may end aid boycott

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was set to swear in a new Cabinet in the West Bank on Sunday, further sealing the divide sparked by the bloody seizure of the Gaza Strip by his Islamist rivals.

Palestinian officials hope the creation of an emergency Cabinet without Hamas will lead to the lifting of a crippling Western aid boycott, and Israel has already said it will work with the new government.

The appointment comes amid a continuing Palestinian power struggle, with masked Fatah fighters storming Parliament in the West Bank and ransacking Hamas-linked institutions, while Hamas militants hunted out Fatah men and looters rifled through fallen bastions in the Gaza Strip.

Aides to Abbas said the Palestinian leader had signed a decree to appoint 11 ministers under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who were due to be sworn in by 1pm local time on Sunday.

Days of violence

Hamas—regarded as a terror group by Israel and the West—routed forces loyal to Abbas from the impoverished Gaza Strip on Friday after days of vicious gun battles that left more than 110 people dead.

Abbas, who enjoys the support of the West, declared a state of emergency and sacked the Hamas-led unity government, naming Fayyad, a respected former finance minister and World Bank economist, as prime minister.

Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, branded a military coup by Abbas, has effectively split the Palestinians into two separate entities in Gaza and the West Bank, making their aspirations of an independent state an ever more distant dream.

But the end of the three-month-old unity government has also given Abbas the opportunity to appoint a new Cabinet in the hope of ending the direct Western aid boycott to the Palestinian Authority.

The United States and European Union, which along with Israel consider Hamas a terrorist group, halted direct aid to the Palestinian Authority last year after Hamas formed a government following its stunning election victory.

A senior Palestinian official said the US government has indicated it will resume aid once the new Cabinet has been sworn in, but a State Department spokesperson in Washington said no decision had yet been made.

‘Full support’

The so-called quartet of international mediators for Middle East peace—the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia—have offered their “full support” to Abbas. On Saturday, they recognised the “legitimacy” of his decision to sack the Hamas-led unity government and declare a state of emergency.

Israel also indicated its support of the new Cabinet.
“A Palestinian government which is not a Hamas government is a partner and we will cooperate with it,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said as he left Israel for a trip to the US.

“A new reality has been created during these past days which we haven’t known during the long diplomatic efforts accompanying the evolution of the Palestinian Authority, and we have the intention of working full-tilt to seize this opportunity,” he added.

A senior Israeli official has said the Jewish state is willing to release hundreds of millions of dollars in custom revenues, which it withheld following Hamas’s election victory, if the new cabinet agrees to recognise Israel, renounce violence and agree to abide by past peace deals.

On Saturday, Fatah fighters went on the rampage against Hamas in the West Bank, stoking fears deadly factional violence could spread as the Islamists tightened their grip on power in the volatile Gaza Strip.

A Hamas spokesperson in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, denounced “an extermination campaign” in the West Bank, warning: “We will not remain with our arms crossed in the face of these crimes.”

In Gaza, Hamas gunmen were going house to house on Saturday in search of Fatah rivals to seize their weapons, while hundreds of Fatah men fearing reprisals were fleeing by fled by land and sea.

Crisis fears

With Gaza sealed off from the outside world by Israel, there are fears of a humanitarian crisis in the tiny strip of land, home to about 1,5-million people and one of the most overcrowded places on Earth.

Queues of people were lined up outside bakeries and supermarkets as frantic residents stock up on food, fearful of shortages if Israel keeps all border crossings closed.

The creation of an Islamic enclave on Israel’s doorstep has set off alarm bells in the Jewish state and the international community, further dashing prospects for peace in the Middle East.

However, Hamas supremo Khaled Meshaal said his Islamic Resistance Movement was not seeking to take power in the territories and vowed to cooperate with Abbas—an olive branch rejected by Fatah officials.—Sapa-AFP

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