Hamas-Fatah coalition government formed

On March 17, the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) approved the formation of a new Hamas-Fatah "national unity" government by 83 votes in favour and three against. The formation of the new government followed agreements reached in Mecca last month between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas.

Formation of the new government is aimed at ending fighting between the armed supporters of two main Palestinian political parties and bringing an end to the international economic blockade of the Palestinian National Authority led by Israel, the US and the European Union.

Voting against was independent PLC member Hassan Khreisha and the two PLC members from the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. PFLP PLC member Khalida Jarrar told the New York-based Media Line news website on March 9 that the Fatah-Hamas agreements "will not lead to ending the [Israeli] occupation".

The new government has the support of the more than 30 PLC members who, in the wake of Hamas and its allies winning a majority in the January 2006 PLC elections, were abducted and imprisoned by Israel. According to the Palestinian Maan news agency, in a statement read out at the government's swearing-in ceremony, "the prisoners expressed their support for, and confidence in, the new unity government, stressing the necessity of achieving Palestinian rights in Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees and alleviating the suffering of the Palestinians".

The new government comprises 11 ministers from Hamas, six from Fatah, and one each from Mustafa Barghouti's Palestinian National Initiative party (PNI), the Palestinian Peoples Party (formerly the Palestinian Communist Party), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), Hanan Ashwari's Third Way Party, plus four independent.

Despite objections by the US and Israel, Hamas will continue to hold the office of prime minister. Fatah, which has been receiving funding from the US and Israel, will hold the deputy prime ministership, while the important ministries of foreign relations and internal affairs (in charge of the police) have been allocated to independents Ziad Abu Amr and Hani Qawasmi. A third key ministry, that of finances, has been allocated to Salam Fayyad from the Third Way Party.

The first point in the declared program of the new government is an affirmation that "ending the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and recognising the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people is the key to security and stability in the region".

The new government is therefore committed to "work with the Arabs and the international community for ending the occupation and retrieving the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and most importantly establishing a sovereign Palestinian state in the lands occupied in 1967 with Jerusalem as a capital".

In line with the Mecca Accord brokered by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, the program of the new government will abide by the national reconciliation document (also known as the prisoner's document) and will respect the international agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and will be responsible for carrying out "international negotiations to further the Palestinian national interest", with any final agreements with Israel having to be approved by a new elected PLO Palestinian National Council or by a popular referendum.

However, the program also reaffirms that, in accordance with international law, "our Palestinian people have the right to defend themselves in [the] face of any Israeli aggression and believes that halting resistance depends on ending the occupation and achieving freedom, [the right of] return [of Palestinian refugees] and independence".

It affirms that a comprehensive reciprocal truce with Israel can only occur "in return for Israel halting its occupation measures on the ground", including assassinations, arrests, incursions, home demolitions, levelling of land, digging near Harem Al Sharif (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem, the removal of checkpoints, the lifting of all restrictions on movement and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

According to the new government's program, security services will be restructured in order to "move them away from political polarisation and conflicts and consolidate in them the loyalty to homeland and to have them abide by executing the decision of their political leadership".

Abbas and Haniyeh also agreed to establish a new Palestinian National Security Council in order to jointly oversee Palestinian security forces and issues, with Abbas as chairperson and Haniyeh as his deputy.

However, according to the March 19 Tel Aviv Haaretz, Abbas has announced he would appoint Mohammed Dahlan, a prominent Fatah member despised by Hamas for leading a crackdown on it in the 1990s, as secretary of the PNSC.

Hamas spokesperson Salah Bardawill told Maan on March 19 that his party would oppose the appointment. "Dahlan is a provocative personality and we have just escaped a critical internal situation, involving infighting and the killing of people", Bardawill said, adding: "He was one of the most noticeable figures during the fighting."

Israel has announced that it will not deal with any of the ministers in the new Palestinian government, but only with Abbas. The March 21 Haaretz reported that the Israeli government had also decided that it will "snub foreign statesmen who met with Hamas ministers serving in the cabinet of the Palestinian unity government".

The Israeli decision came in the wake of Norwegian deputy foreign minister Raymond Johansen's meeting with Abbas, Haniyeh and new Palestinian foreign minister Ziad Abo-Amro.

Associated Press reported on March 22 that Washington "is in the middle of an emerging division among allies in Israel and Europe over how to deal with a Palestinian coalition government that includes Hamas militants alongside Western-backed moderates …

"The US plans to keep up contacts with select non-Hamas members of the new Palestinian cabinet", while "Europe appears more willing to give the Hamas-Fatah coalition the benefit of the doubt — that vague or open-ended statements in the government platform amount to de facto acceptance of Israel and previous Palestinian peace deals.

"Although careful not to condemn the new government or its platform, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the government's insistence on a right to 'resistance' was a disturbing position."

Israel and Washington, while waging war on the Arab peoples of Palestine and Iraq, insist that they will only deal with Palestinians who "renounce violence".

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