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RAMALLAH - The news that a Palestinian unity government had finally been formed brought a sigh of relief to Ramallah, coming as it did after long months of negotiations, bloodshed and fears of civil war. In meetings with acquaintances here yesterday, I heard not a single word of criticism or disappointment - only hope.

"What's important to us now is that there be a little quiet and we stop killing each other," explained a doctor at the new Sheikh Zaid hospital. To the Palestinians, the unity government is the only way to stop the street battles. Whether or not it is a good government, or how Israel deals with it, are less important: The only alternative is civil war.

The unity government's ultimate test will be whether it manages to end the economic boycott of the Palestinian Authority and revive the peace process. But first, it will have to arrange a prisoner exchange, in which kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit will be traded for numerous Palestinian prisoners.

To understand the new government's diplomatic platform, it is worth reading a key section of the official announcement of its establishment. Clause 2 of the section on the government's diplomatic program says: "The government is committed to defending the supreme national interests of the Palestinian people and its rights, preserving its achievements and developing it, and working to realize its national goals, as ratified in decisions of the Palestinian National Council, in its founding constitution, in the national unity document [which is based on the prisoners' document - D.R.], and in decisions of the Arab summit, and on this basis, the government will respect international decisions and the agreements signed by the PLO." This tortuous sentence was the result of lengthy and complex negotiations between Fatah and Hamas. Its interpretation, of course, depends on the eye of the beholder.

Journalists in Ramallah said yesterday that this document, and this government, can be viewed as a new page in Palestinian politics. However, some predicted that it would last only a few months, after which chaos would return.

One can certainly find indications in this government of flexibility and pragmatism on Hamas' part: For instance, none of the Hamas ministers arrested by Israel following Shalit's abduction are included in it. Why not? A senior Palestinian journalist explained: "Because they want to be practical. They want the new government to function well, and not to be only a national symbol."