On February 18, the newly elected, Hamas dominated, Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) was officially sworn in, despite attempts by the Israeli military to disrupt the ceremony, which opened the way for a Palestinian government to be formed that would not be dominated by the Fatah movement.
Israeli occupation forces surrounded Ramallah, sealing off the city and much of the northern West Bank, while simultaneously sealing off the Gaza Strip, making it impossible for many of the 132 newly elected PLC members to travel to Ramallah for the ceremony. Instead, two separate ceremonies took place, linked by video conference.
Another 16 members of the new PLC were unable to attend the official ceremonies, as they are currently political prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Hamas, which won 74 of the 132 seats in the January 25 parliamentary election, nominated Ismail Haniyeh as its choice for incoming prime minister and Mahmoud al Zahar as speaker of the PLC.
In the days leading up to the swearing in of the PLC, Hamas announced it would seek to form a "national unity" government, involving all Palestinian factions. The left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which won three seats in the PLC, indicated a willingness to join such a government.
On January 22, Azzam el Ahmad, head of the Fatah movement in the PLC, where it holds 45 seats, announced that his movement agreed in principle to join a coalition government with Hamas. Speaking to reporters from a joint news conference held with Zahar at the latter's home in Gaza City, Ahmad said, in reference to the political program of Fatah which recognises the 1993 Oslo Accord with Israel: "If we overcome these differences, we might then be able to reach together to our joint major goals."
Hamas also announced it would offer Israel a long-term ceasefire. Israel, however, rejected the offer.
Despite denying claims that the US and Israel plan to "starve out" the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority, the US Congress voted in mid-February to cut US$400,000 in aid to the PA and demanded the return of $50 million already given to the PA for infrastructure improvements.
Immediately following the swearing in of the PLC, the Israeli cabinet announced it would step up Israel's regime of collective punishment against the civilian population of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, by refusing to hand over $50 million in monthly customs duties it collects on behalf of the PA from Palestinians. Under international law, collective punishment is illegal.
In 2005, this tax collection totalled $711 million, making
up two-thirds of the PA's operating revenue. The PA uses the revenue to pay the wages of 140,000 Palestinian employees.
Israel says it will still allow humanitarian aid to reach Palestine, but only if the NGOs involved have no link with Hamas.
In addition, Israel has announced it will further restrict the movement of Palestinians by sealing off the Gaza Strip and preventing some 4000 Palestinians who work in Israel from entering the country.
Israel has also begun implementing a new military order that restricts the entry into Israel of Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank and has announced it will accelerate the building of its illegal apartheid wall.
On February 16 Middle East Online reported that Dov Weisglass chief advisor to ailing Israeli PM Ariel Sharon and architect of the Gaza disengagement plan, strongly pushed for further measures to impoverish the Palestinian population. "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet but not make them die of hunger", Israeli public radio quoted him as saying.
The February 20 Jerusalem Haaretz reported that, in response to Israel's new punitive measures, Haniyeh said: "The steps are not new in terms of the Israeli occupation, which punish the Palestinians using the pretext of the Hamas election victory." He also said they were "an attempt to conspire against the democratic elections by the Palestinian people". Hamas, he added, would seek to find funds elsewhere.
Despite US and Israeli sanctions, which have been denounced by the UN, Sweden announced on February 20 that it would channel $6.4 million in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians through the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, the United Nations Children's Fund and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Russia also announced the same day that it would provide emergency assistance to the Palestinians as part of international humanitarian relief efforts.
Two days later, Iran offered to help finance a Hamas-led PA, and the Arab League called on the European Union not to politically isolate the incoming government. "The money given to government of Palestine does not go to ministers to enjoy their lives. It is for the Palestinians to eat, to send children to school", Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa told the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee.
From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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