RAMALLAH - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a unity government on Monday after overcoming a last-minute dispute with the Hamas Islamist group.
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Ministers in the new administration, whom Abbas has said would be politically unaffiliated, took the oath of office in a televised ceremony in Ramallah, the Palestinian seat of government in the West Bank. A number of ministers from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, who were denied entry to the West Bank by Israel, were sworn in by teleconference.
The dispute was over Abbas' plan to dismantle the Prisoners Affairs Ministry and put it under PLO administration, which Hamas opposed. At the last minute, the sides agreed that the ministry would continue to function for the time being but it would have no official minister.
Instead, Hamas official Salah Al-Bardaweel said it was agreed that the Ministry for Prisoner Affairs would be given to Prime Minister Rami Al-Hamdallah. With that compromise, said Al-Bardaweel, "the dispute between Hamas and Fatah has been resolved," Reuters reported Monday.
The Palestinian Authority split in two in June 2007, when Hamas forces kicked the PLO out of Gaza in battles that left over 100 dead and 500 wounded. The Gaza-based Islamist group Hamas and the PLO agreed to implement a unity pact to end the division of the two polities on April 23.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made a short speech after swearing in the new government, stressing that it would be committed to its diplomatic platform and to previous agreements, and that he would be responsible for negotiations as chairman of the PLO and not on the authority of the new government.
Abbas mentioned the massive support of Arab countries for the unity government and remarked that he also received support from Russia and the European Union, as well as positive signs from the United States.
The president referred to Israel in an aggressive overtone, saying that the PA and the PLO are still committed to the peace process, based on principles of the international community and the Arab Peace Initiative. However, he warned that Israel's declarations threatening to punish the PA "reveal the true face of the Israeli government, which is working solely for the sake of entrenching the occupation, building settlements and Judaizing Jerusalem." He said these steps only serve to give the Palestinians the strength to continue with reconciliation moves.
According to Abbas, every step that Israel takes against the PA will merit a Palestinian reaction. "We are not for escalation. We are not interested in stepping up the tension," he said. "But we won't stand with our hands folded in the face of punitive measures, and we will use every legal and diplomatic tool at our disposal in the international community."
Abbas spoke directly to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and said the new government would take measures to improve the situation in every area, and especially regarding the siege of the Strip.
Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, told Haaretz that no date was set for the ministers to visit Gaza, and that the matter would be discussed in the near future.
Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' prime minister in the Gaza strip, welcomed the "historic move" whereby "the two sides worked to end the rift for the sake of the Palestinian people." He added that the Palestinian people would not face any nationalistic or political rifts.
Hamas officials had said they opposed the planned cabinet lineup in its current form because Abbas intended to dissolve the Prisoners Affairs Ministry and transfer responsibility for prisoner issues to an administration that would be subordinate to the PLO.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said earlier Monday the militant group would not accept a government without such a minister and that it was their "final decision." He wrote on his Facebook page that Hamas insisted on it remaining an independent ministry as it has so far.
Qadura Fares, director of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, said he spoke personally with senior Hamas officials, and they expressed reservations about the timing of dismantling the Prisoner Affairs Ministry, but not to the process itself. The decision was made because of an incitement campaign, as Fares described it, which Israel led against the ministry, and the financial aid the families of Palestinian prisoners as well as the prisoners themselves receive.
All the ministers in the new government are technocrats who are not identified with any political party. The new government’s platform was expected to declare acceptance of the terms of the Middle East Quartet – recognition of Israel, rejection of terror, and to honor previously signed agreements.
The new government contains no big surprises; those who served as ministers in the dominant ministries will remain in office. Al-Hamdallah, who served as prime minister and also as interior minister — which included being in charge of the security services and the police force — will remain prime minister. Finance Minister Shukri Bishara will remain in his position as well, and Dr. Riyad al-Maliki will continue as foreign minister despite Hamas’s reservations.
The Gazan ministers are Housing Minister Mufeed Hasayneh, Justice Minister Salim al-Saqqa, Labor Minister Mamoun Abu Shahla and Women’s Affairs Minister Hayfaa al-Agha.
The Government Media Office of the Hamas administration in Gaza referred to Haniyeh on Monday as "the former Palestinian prime minister," removing any doubts about the validity of the newly sworn in unity government. The office had called Haniyeh "prime minister" as late as Sunday on its website.
The office issued in its statement Monday afternoon that consultations between Hamas and Fatah were continuing. The statement confirmed what Fatah officials had earlier said – that anyone who objected to the swearing in of the new government did not represent all of Hamas.
Israel has announced it will not recognize the new reconciliation government and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has promised Israel that America will not immediately recognize the new unity government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the security cabinet on Sunday, according to two ministers at the meeting.