Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Khaled Amayreh reports from the West Bank as the Legislative Council approves a Hamas-led cabinet

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An Israeli soldier arrests an American protester during a demonstration by Palestinian land owners in the West Bank village of Billin

The 24-minister Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA) cabinet was approved by a large majority by the Legislative Council on Tuesday, the same day Israeli general elections were held. Preceded by two days of often acrimonious discussion of the government programme among law-makers, particularly from the Fatah-dominated opposition, the approval was largely a formality since Hamas, which won the 25-January legislative elections, controls as many as 74 seats in the 132-seat parliament.

Seventy-one law-makers, including four independent deputies and two representing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, gave the government their confidence. Thirteen law-makers, including nine affiliated with Hamas, could not take part in the voting as they remain in detention in Israeli jails and detention camps. Ten others were absent, probably because they could not make it to Ramallah through numerous Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints. Meanwhile, 36 law-makers voted against the government, and three abstained.

But all Fatah law-makers voted against the government, citing Hamas's refusal to recognise either previous agreements concluded between Israel and the PA leadership, or the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as "the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people".

Hamas had defended its position in this regard, arguing that the PLO in its current shape is anachronistic and does not truly represent all the Palestinian people. Hamas leaders, including speaker of parliament Aziz Duweik, said the PLO would have to be restructured and reformed, noting that the bulk of Palestine National Council (PNC) members were never elected but rather appointed by late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Hamas's statements on this issue exasperated some Fatah leaders, and PA Secretary Tayeb Abdul-Rahim warned Hamas that PA President Abbas would overthrow the government if the new government continued to undermine the paramount interests of the Palestinian people. Other Fatah leaders, apparently seeking to put Hamas on the defensive, went as far as accusing the movement of "acquiescing" to plans by acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to annex large swaths of the West Bank and unilaterally impose borders between Israel and whatever would remain un-annexed of Palestinian territory.

Hamas scoffed at the charges, calling them "too brazen to be believed". Nonetheless, the Fatah caucus chairman in the Legislative Council, Azzam Al-Ahmed, said he hoped the new government would be able to work in harmony with the PA leadership, in spite of differences. "Hamas must understand that running a government is not the same as running an organisation," he said, adding that while the government's programme talked about peace, it did not outline the mechanisms of achieving peace. "I hope they will rewrite the programme in line with the requirements of our people."

The cabinet is set to be sworn in before Abbas on Thursday, according to Nayef Rajoub, who has been appointed minister of waqf and Islamic Affairs. Rajoub told Al-Ahram Weekly that the government would begin to function formally only after the swearing-in ceremony.

On Monday, Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh declared his government a government of peace, not a government of confrontation and provocation. He described as "convulsive" statements by American officials following the Hamas electoral victory on 25 January, which he said were "unjustified and unnecessary. These decisions and statements hastily taken by the American administration are totally unjustified and do not serve the cause of peace and stability in this part of the world."

On Tuesday Haniyeh also criticised the United States for its cool response to Hamas's call for dialogue, accusing the US of taking a biased and hostile stand against the Palestinian people. Speaking to reporters in Gaza, he urged the Americans to "be more rational and less erratic and not to issue preconceived statements and judgements on an elected Palestinian government."

It remains uncertain how the PA, with its two diverging centres of power, will deal with the new political realities in Israel, in light of Tuesday's elections. The PA leadership cautiously welcomed the electoral victory of the Kadima Party and the likelihood of forming a coalition with the Labour Party, saying the Palestinians were willing and ready to renew negotiations with Israel immediately. "We're ready to go into direct and immediate negotiations to implement the roadmap if the Israeli government is ready," said Abbas's media adviser Nabil Abu Rudeina.

Meanwhile, Hamas demanded that the next Israeli government move to end the occupation and recognise the right of the Palestinian people to establish a viable and sovereign state with Jerusalem as its capital.

But in fact most Palestinians, including Hamas, reacted to the outcome of the Israeli elections with a marked degree of ambivalence. On the one hand, they were satisfied that the Likud and its ally right-wing and messianic Jewish parties did not win. Needless to say, most of the parties call for perpetuating and consolidating the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and even expelling non-Jews in order to allow for the creation of a pure ethno-religious Jewish state. On the other hand, Palestinians view with utmost gravity Olmert's plans of unilaterally determining Israel's "permanent borders", which they see as a mere euphemism for annexing large parts of the West Bank and truncating the would-be Palestinian state into hapless enclaves and townships cut off from each other by Israeli roadblocks, checkpoints, barbed wires, and concrete walls. Indeed, the very essence of Olmert's platform is one based on "separation and disengagement" from the Palestinians, unilaterally and single-mindedly if there is no Palestinian partner the Israelis are willing to recognise.

There is no doubt that both the Palestinian government and the PA leadership will have to carefully and intelligently study the outcome of the Israeli elections and whether the new political realities in Israel provided a true opportunity for peace. It is also possible, if not likely, that Hamas will give the PA leadership, though begrudgingly, a free rein to conduct negotiations with the new Israeli government. One Hamas official intimated that, "if Abbas can achieve results, we would welcome that. But if he cannot, then he will have only himself to blame, and we will tell the Palestinian people: 'we told you so.'"

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