Hamas, Fatah finalising 'unity' cabinet

Independent surveys by the Jerusalem Media Communication Centre, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) and the Najah National University Centre for Opinion Polls and Survey Studies have each found two-thirds of Palestinian in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza support the formation of a national unity government as a way to overcome the economic embargo imposed by Israel, the US and the European Union.

Representatives of both Hamas, which currently leads the Palestinian Authority (PA) government, and the opposition Fatah party have publicly stated that they are ready to form a national unity government in order to alleviate the economic blockade.

The November 13 Israeli Haaretz daily reported that Hamas is likely to have 11 or 12 ministers in such a government, while Fatah will have five to seven. Haaretz reported that Hamas was seeking to retain the posts of interior minister which controls the security forces, as well as finance, health and education.

Despite polls revealing that PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is the most popular and trusted political figure among Palestinians, he has indicated he is willing to step aside in order to allow a non-Hamas "independent" candidate take his place.

According to both the Israeli and Palestinian media, Hamas and Fatah have informally agreed that Mohammed Shabir, the independent former head of Gaza's Islamic University, will succeed Haniyeh as PM.

The November 13 Haaretz reported that "Shabir, who has a doctorate in microbiology from the University of West Virginia, is considered to be close to Hamas, but he is not an active supporter, nor is he identified with any Palestinian organization.

"Hamas and Fatah hope that Shabir, considered to be relatively moderate, will be acceptable to the international community and would help convince the West to lift debilitating economic sanctions that have crippled the [Hamas] government since it took power in March."

The West's economic embargo has been aimed at turning Palestinians against Hamas. According to the results of a PCPSR poll, published on September 18, 54% of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the Hamas government.

"Dissatisfaction with the performance of the Hamas government regarding economic issues, such as salaries and poverty, reaches 69%", the PCPSR reported. However, "the percentage of those who say that they would vote for it [Hamas] if new elections are held today remains essentially unchanged, standing at 38% compared to 39% three months ago...

"Moreover, a majority (67%) does not think that Hamas should accept the demand of the donor community to recognize Israel and only 30% believe it should."

Fatah's popularity had increases during the same period from 39% to 41%.

It is precisely because of this unchanged public support for Hamas that Fatah leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas has not carried through on his threat to dissolve the Palestinian parliament and the Hamas-led PA cabinet. Doing so would be regarded by most Palestinians as an undemocratic act — a coup in the service of Israel and the US.

Both Washington and Tel Aviv however continued to pressure Abbas to carry out such a coup. In an article in the November 9-15 Egyptian Al Ahram Weekly, Joseph Massad, professor of modern Arab politics at New York City's Columbia University, wrote: "Not only are the US and Israel financially backing the open preparation for a coup to be staged by the top leadership of Fateh (and in the case of Israel allowing weapons' transfers to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Praetorian Guard), but so are the intelligence services of a number of Israel-and US-friendly Arab countries whose intelligence services have set up shop openly in Ramallah…

"Hamas is almost as well-armed as Fateh forces and can defend the rights of the Palestinians to resist the Israeli occupation and the well-armed Palestinian collaborators that help to enforce it. This is where the situation today differs measurably from that of the mid-1990s. To offset this new balance of forces, the United States government, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, has been training Abbas's Praetorian Guard in Jericho for over a month with American, British, Egyptian, and Jordanian military instructors, and is providing arms to them in preparation for the confrontation with Hamas."

Massad argued that Abbas and his closest Fatah allies "are reticent at the moment to start an open war for fear of a public backlash. They prefer to remove Hamas through imposing a 'national unity' government that would undercut Hamas gradually and peacefully."

Despite saying that it is now willing to hold possible discussions with a Hamas-Fatah coalition government, the Israeli government of PM Ehud Olmert has given no guarantee that it will agree to release Hamas-affiliated MPs it has arrested over the past few months. Israel has also rejected out of hand a new peace proposal by Spain, Italy and France.

The plan, announced by Spanish PM Jose Zapatero on November 16, calls for an immediate ceasefire, the formation of a Palestinian unity government, an exchange of prisoners, the restarting of negotiations between Olmert and Abbas and an international mission to be located in Gaza to monitor a ceasefire.

[Kim Bullimore lived in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 2004, where she worked with the International Women's Peace Service. She is a member of the Melbourne Palestine Solidarity Network.]

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