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June 2, 2014 6:33 pm
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, swore in a unity government on Monday as part of a reconciliation accord between his Fatah faction and the Islamist group Hamas, taking a significant step towards ending seven years of division but heightening tensions with Israel.
Mr Abbas said the 17-member cabinet, with ministers from both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would follow his policies and meet international conditions for diplomatic contact: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of previous accords with the Israelis.
Israel has said it will have no dealings with a government backed by Hamas, which has carried out suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel, despite the Palestinian leader’s assurances that the new cabinet is composed of technocrats unaffiliated with either Fatah or Hamas.
The Israeli authorities barred three appointed ministers from leaving Gaza to attend the swearing in ceremony at Mr Abbas’s headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Palestinian officials described the formation of the unity government – after seven years of bitter rivalry and feuding leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – as “historic”, and ordinary Palestinians said they were encouraged.
But there was broad acknowledgment that major obstacles remained in integrating the dual administrations run by Fatah and Hamas, particularly their security forces.
“We realise that there are many issues we must deal with,” Mr Abbas conceded in his speech. “We understand that we will face many difficulties, but we believe that the train of reconciliation has already departed, and no one can stop it.”
The US, which along with Israel and the EU lists Hamas as a terrorist organisation, has reserved judgment on the new government. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that secretary of state John Kerry had told Mr Abbas in a phone call on Sunday that Washington would “judge any government based on its composition, policies and actions.”
The EU which welcomed the Palestinian reconciliation agreement reached in April, issued no immediate response to the swearing in of the new government.
But Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, convened his security cabinet to discuss possible responses to the Palestinian move and criticised European nations for what he said were their suggestions that Hamas might be an acceptable political partner.
Citing a deadly attack last month on the Jewish museum in Brussels, Mr Netanyahu said: “It is surprising to me that European governments which roundly condemn this act of murder, to the same extent speak ambiguously and even in a friendly way about a unity government with Hamas, which is a terrorist organisation that carries out such crimes.”
In a speech given after the new ministers were sworn in, Mr Abbas told his audience that the inauguration marked a new beginning after the seven-year split between Fatah and Hamas.
“Today, in forming the government of national consensus, we declare the end of the division which caused disastrous harm to our cause for the past seven years,” Mr Abbas said. “Today we announce the recovery of the unity of the homeland and unity of institutions . . . [a] black page in our history has been closed forever.”
He said the government would “naturally abide, like its predecessors, by the commitments of the Palestinian Authority and signed agreements and our political programme”, which he said were aimed at establishing a Palestinian state that would live “in security and peace alongside the state of Israel in accordance with the two-state solution”.
Mr Abbas added that negotiations with Israel would remain the responsibility of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which he heads, and not the interim government, whose main task is to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections next year.
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