Abbas bypasses Hamas in new cabinet

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, on Sunday swore in an emergency government, bypassing the Hamas-dominated parliament, and outlawed the Hamas militias that last week took control of the Gaza Strip.

Emboldened by international support for his tough response to what a presidential decree described as Hamas’s “military coup” in Gaza, Mr Abbas rejected the blandishments of the Islamic movement that had called for national unity under his leadership.

Salam Fayyad, a former International Monetary Fund official and finance minister in the Hamas-led national unity government that Mr Abbas dismissed on Thursday, was appointed prime minister in a 12-member cabinet dominated by technocrats. They were sworn in at a brief ceremony in Ramallah in the West Bank.

In Gaza, however, Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister sacked by Mr Abbas, insisted his dismissal was unconstitutional and that he remained in power.

In effect, the two Palestinian territories, physically separated by 30 miles of Israeli territory, now have rival administrations – a Hamas one in Gaza and the other, supported by Mr Abbas’s Fatah, in the West Bank.

It is an uneven split. While Mr Abbas has won support from western and Arab states and Israel that will probably lead to a lifting of an economic boycott on the PA, Hamas and Gaza are more isolated than ever.

Jacob Walles, US consul-general in Jerusalem, met Mr Abbas on Saturday and assured him the embargo would be lifted after the new government was sworn in.

Fatah, still reeling from the lightning defeat of its security forces in Gaza, insisted there would be no negotiations with Hamas to end the rift. “Under no circumstances will we negotiate or co-operate with these murderers,” said Azzam al-Ahmad, a Fatah leader in the West Bank. “What Hamas did was suicidal. They have dug their own graves.”

The only Fatah member of the emergency government is Abdul-Razzek al-Yahya, a 78-year-old former military commander who will resume the role of interior minister that he quit in 2002 after failing to resolve the still outstanding issue of unifying the PA’s disparate security forces. In Gaza, Hamas leaders attempted to assert their authority after the homes and offices of Fatah leaders were looted. The movement appealed to Gazans not to stockpile food in response to a complete closure of the territory’s borders. Mr Haniya meanwhile dismissed a number of Fatah security chiefs who had long since fled to the safety of the West Bank.

At the Erez checkpoint into Israel, Israeli soldiers opened fire above the heads of hundreds of Palestinians attempting to flee Gaza. A number of high-ranking Fatah figures were earlier allowed through and made their way to Ramallah.

The brutality of the Hamas takeover in Gaza, including the street executions of Fatah leaders, sparked a backlash in the West Bank at the weekend. Fatah militias overran the parliament building in Ramallah on Saturday, and yesterday government employees allied to Hamas stayed away from their desks following a roundup of Hamas officials.

In decrees signed by Mr Abbas at the weekend, he suspended basic Palestinian laws in order to allow the appointment of an emergency government without parliamentary approval. The assembly has been dominated by Hamas since its election victory 18 months ago, although around a third of its Hamas members are now in Israeli jails.

The international Middle East quartet – the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia – has expressed “understanding and support” for Mr Abbas’s decisions and their legitimacy under Palestinian law. The Arab League is similarly standing by the PA president.

Ehud Olmert, Israeli prime minister, said as he left for a visit to the US on Sunday that the situation presented a new opportunity to make diplomatic progress with the Palestinians.

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