Gaza's Hamas would cede power to Abbas government

February 7, 2012 - 1:35 PM
Mideast Qatar Palestinian Reconciliation

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, shakes hands with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, right, as the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, center, looks on, after signing an agreement in Doha, Qatar, Monday, Feb 6, 2012. The main Palestinian political rivals on Monday took a major step toward healing their bitter rift, agreeing that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would head an interim unity government to prepare for general elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Osama Faisal)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Gaza's ruling Islamic militant Hamas is ready to cede power to an interim unity government led by its longtime rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a spokesman said Tuesday, but problems loomed over government policy and international recognition.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum's assurances came a day after Abbas and Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas chief in exile, agreed that Abbas should serve as prime minister of a transition government that would prepare for elections in the West Bank and Gaza.

The accord, brokered by Qatar and signed in Doha, was seen as a decisive step toward reconciliation. The Palestinians have had separate governments since Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007, leaving the internationally backed Abbas with only the West Bank.

Under the Doha deal, Abbas would head a government of politically independent technocrats whose main task would be to prepare for presidential and parliament elections.

The accord came under fire in Gaza on Tuesday.

The most senior Hamas member to criticize it in public was lawmaker Ismail al-Ashkar, who heads the group's parliament faction in Gaza and has been involved in reconciliation talks with Abbas' Fatah movement.

Al-Ashkar said having Abbas serve both as president and as prime minister violates the Palestinian basic law, the forerunner of an eventual constitution. "I am not against the agreement (but) a person other than Mahmoud Abbas should be named" as prime minister, he said in an interview at the Gaza parliament.

Naming Abbas had ended months of arguments over a candidate for prime minister that had held up implementation of a reconciliation deal, initially reached in May. It is unlikely another consensus candidate can be found, suggesting the lawmaker's criticism targets the entire deal.

Barhoum noted that Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, welcomed the agreement on the new government. "These are responsible remarks from the top of the political pyramid in Gaza," Barhoum said. "There is no problem."

One of Abbas' biggest challenges will be to win international backing for the interim government. The Quartet of Mideast mediators — the U.S., U.N., EU and Russia — has said it will deal with any Palestinian government that renounces violence, recognizes Israel and honors previous agreements with Israel. Abbas has conducted peace talks with Israel in the past and embraces those principles, but Hamas rejects all three points.

Israel has said it will not deal with a government that includes Hamas. Israel considers Hamas a terror group. Hamas has sent dozens of suicide bombers into Israel, killing hundreds, and frequent rocket fire from Gaza targets southern Israel.

Abbas aides have said the interim government will adopt his political platform, suggesting this would ensure international support.

Barhoum insisted Tuesday that the interim government cannot adopt any political platform, since its main task is preparing for elections. While Abbas should try to market this government to the international community, "we should not design a government that fits the mold prescribed by the Europeans or the West," he said.

Despite promises by both sides to move forward quickly, deep distrust remains after nearly five years of animosity, including mutual arrests of each others' activists.

Abbas pledged Monday he would free 64 Hamas activists held in his West Bank jails as a goodwill gesture. Hamas said Tuesday that only nine were released without conditions, 35 were freed on bail and that some of the others had either completed their sentence or were released before the Doha deal.

Fatah complained that Hamas has not permitted work to begin on updating voter records in Gaza, a crucial step ahead of elections. Hamas has denied those complaints.

Hamas, Fatah and smaller political factions are set to meet in Cairo on Feb. 18 to announce the composition of the new government. Elections were initially envisioned for May, but delays in preparations mean voting is unlikely before the summer.