Palestinian unity government takes office

GAZA Sat Mar 17, 2007 4:12pm EDT

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh raise their hands before Haniyeh's speech to parliament in Gaza March 17, 2007. Palestinian leaders struck discordant notes on how to deal with Israel on Saturday as parliament met to usher in a unity government intended to halt factional fighting and ease a crippling Western aid embargo. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (L) and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh raise their hands before Haniyeh's speech to parliament in Gaza March 17, 2007. Palestinian leaders struck discordant notes on how to deal with Israel on Saturday as parliament met to usher in a unity government intended to halt factional fighting and ease a crippling Western aid embargo.

Credit: Reuters/Suhaib Salem

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GAZA (Reuters) - A Palestinian unity government rejected by Israel as a peace partner took office on Saturday, pairing Islamist Hamas and secular Fatah in a coalition they hope can end factional violence and painful foreign sanctions.

"Today is the beginning of a new era," said Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. "Today's events are a source of pride for the Palestinians and the Arab nation."

Palestinian lawmakers endorsed the cabinet, later sworn in by President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, after Haniyeh announced a platform declaring that "resistance in all its forms, including popular resistance to occupation, is a legitimate right".

Hamas, which has proposed a long-term truce with Israel in return for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, regards the Jewish state as occupied territory. Its 1988 founding charter calls for Israel's destruction.

Abbas, who heads the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), again endorsed an Arab League offer of full peace with Israel if it quits all the land it occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel ruled out dealing with the new coalition, citing Hamas's refusal to accept demands, set by a Quartet of foreign peace mediators a year ago, that it forswear violence, recognize the Jewish state and accept past interim peace deals.

"We're not going to work with this government," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisin.

The United States, expected to maintain its boycott of the Palestinian government, voiced disappointment at Haniyeh's remarks.

"The national unity government's platform reference to the right of resistance is disturbing and contradicts the Quartet principles of renunciation of violence," State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck said.

The Quartet -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- cut off direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, deepening poverty in the West Bank and Gaza, after Hamas came to power in a January 2006 election.

RECOGNITION

Israel has said it would maintain a dialogue with Abbas, and with international anxiety mounting over diplomatic impasse, internal violence and Palestinian poverty, there have been signs of Western flexibility on talking to non-Hamas cabinet members.

France has invited new Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr to Paris, and Britain plans contacts with non-Hamas ministers.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a statement the international community should back the government.

Norway, where Israel and the PLO secretly negotiated their first peace accord in the early 1990s, swiftly recognized the new administration, saying its alternative would have been continued violence in the Palestinian territories.

More than 300 Palestinians have been killed in factional warfare in the past year that has largely calmed since a Saudi-brokered unity deal last month.

Haniyeh said Palestinians were looking forward to a unified European position "toward ending the political, financial and economic siege of the Palestinian government and people".

The EU welcomed the establishment of the unity government, but pointedly made reference to the Quartet's terms and said renewal of direct assistance would depend on an assessment of the new cabinet's platform and actions.

Israel has withheld most Palestinian tax revenues and the government has been unable to pay its 161,000 employees -- who support a million Palestinians -- in full for a year.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana would discuss with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington on Monday how to respond to the Palestinian coalition, diplomats said.

A U.S. official said on Friday that unofficial contacts with reformist Finance Minister Salam Fayyad might be possible.

Eight-three of the 87 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council attending a video-linked session in Gaza and Ramallah voted in favor of the government.

Forty-one of the council's 132 members, including 37 from Hamas, are in Israeli jails. Israeli travel restrictions prevented the legislators from meeting in a single venue.

The coalition's programme calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Haniyeh said the cabinet would hold its first meeting on Sunday.

(Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah, Paul Taylor in Brussels, Wojciech Moskwa in Oslo and Randall Mikkelsen in Washington)

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