Monday, June 18, 2007

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas swore in an emergency Cabinet free of Hamas members yesterday, prompting an immediate promise that the new government will have the “full support” of the U.S. government.

Appearing at his Ramallah headquarters, Mr. Abbas also issued an order officially outlawing Hamas’ military wing, which last week forcibly drove Fatah security forces out of the Gaza Strip.

With Hamas leaders holding onto power in Gaza in defiance of Mr. Abbas, the West Bank and Gaza are now ruled by rival political entities, dealing a serious setback to Palestinian aspirations to create a state of the their own.

Both Hamas and Fatah insist that the West Bank and Gaza remain united, but neither government recognizes the legality of the other.

“We insist on organic unity, both administrative and political, of the two parts of the homeland, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank,” said Salam Fayyad, a former finance minister who was sworn in yesterday as prime minister.

He said his new government will work to “put an end to the anomaly of the dishonorable events,” referring to Hamas’ violent seizure of power in Gaza.

Despite the pledge by Cabinet members to retain ties to Gaza, few think that Fatah has any political infrastructure left in the territory that can challenge Hamas.

The West Bank will be controlled by a Western-sponsored leadership dominated by Fatah secularists while, 30 miles to the east, the Gaza Strip is expected to remain under the hold of Islamic militants from Hamas, backed by Syria and Iran.

U.S. Consul General Jacob Walles, the top U.S. diplomat in Jerusalem, told the Associated Press in an interview that the new government “is going to receive the full support of the United States.”

He said Washington — which cut ties with the Palestinian government after a Hamas-led Cabinet took charge last year — would re-engage “very quickly both diplomatically and also economically.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Saturday that the new situation creates an “opportunity” to advance the peace process.

However, in a reminder that Israel faces threats on several fronts, at least two Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon landed yesterday in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmonah, the first missile attacks since the end of the Lebanon war 10 months ago.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri yesterday rejected the newly sworn-in government as “illegitimate,” according to Agence France-Presse. “The only legitimacy it can pride itself on is the acknowledgment of the American administration and the Israeli occupation,” he said.

Mr. Fayyad, a 55-year old former World Bank official who is highly regarded in the U.S. and Europe, is one of several Cabinet members who come from a professional background rather than a Palestinian political party.

But the constitutional grounding for his appointment remains shaky, coming only after Mr. Abbas issued a presidential decree suspending the powers of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian legislature.

“This government is a legitimate government,” insisted Ashraf Ajrami, the newly appointed minister for prisoner affairs and sports. “The old government doesn’t exist.”

Mr. Ajrami, a Gaza journalist who fled to the West Bank because he worked for the Fatah-dominated information ministry, said the new government hoped to isolate Hamas politically.

Having shed the participation of Hamas, the Fatah government in the West Bank is poised to receive a windfall of international aid, as well as customs taxes that Israel had withheld from the previous Islamist-dominated government.

Israeli security officials reportedly hope to enforce a strict separation between Gaza and the West Bank to contain Hamas influence on the coastal strip.

Already isolated by Israel’s closure of its borders, the Hamas-led mini-state in Gaza will find itself impoverished economically and dependent on international humanitarian aid. Dor Energy, one of Israel’s top gasoline companies, said yesterday it would stop supplying fuel to Gaza.

“Now they have thrown Fatah out, the question is how can they survive?” said Mohammed Dajani, a political science professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.

“They don’t have geographic contact with a state that will give them support. [The Gaza-Egypt crossing at] Rafah is their only connection to the world. You are talking about a situation that is a crash-landing situation.”

Mr. Dajani noted that Gaza and the West Bank have for years been two very different places, dating from the period between 1948 and 1967 when the West Bank was part of Jordan and Gaza was administered by Egypt.

Even under Israeli occupation, Gaza remained poorer and more religiously conservative, while the West Bank became known for its larger middle class and more secular outlook.

“The two separate systems has been there all the time,” Mr. Dajani said. “This has widened the gap between two entities.”

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