Abbas swears in emergency Palestinian government
RAMALLAH, West Bank: The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, swore in an emergency government at his headquarters here on Sunday, reasserting his authority over the West Bank days after Fatah's rival, Hamas, routed his forces in Gaza and seized power there.
Adding to the turbulence, two Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon landed in the Israeli northern border town of Kiryat Shmona on Sunday evening. They caused some damage but no casualties, an Israeli Army spokesman said.
The rockets were the first fired over Israel's northern border since a cease-fire ended last summer's war against Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia. Hezbollah denied having any connection with the rocket attacks on Sunday.
The Lebanese Army said in a statement that three rockets were fired and a fourth was found in an area about two miles north of the border, and that the rockets had been fired by "unknown elements."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, in New York on a visit that will take him to Washington for a meeting Tuesday with President George W. Bush, said Israel had concluded that the rockets were launched by "a small Palestinian section" that he said was "most likely" tied to Al Qaeda.
Speaking to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at the Regency Hotel, Olmert said Sunday that the finding "doesn't make it any more acceptable." But he added that in an earlier meeting Sunday he had told United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, that thanks to United Nations forces sent to southern Lebanon at the end of last summer's war with Hezbollah, northern Israel was "the safest" it had been in 40 years.
In another development, the satellite television channel Al Jazeera broadcast a video it said was from the Army of Islam in which the group threatened to kill the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston. The group says it has been holding Johnston since he went missing in March.
Abu Khattab, identified as a spokesman for the group, told Al Jazeera that there was no deal to release Johnston, and "if the situation gets more complicated concerning us and our group, then we will ingratiate ourselves to God by slaying this journalist."
Under the circumstances, the swearing-in ceremony in Ramallah was a somber affair. Salam Fayyad, an internationally respected economist, will serve as prime minister as well as finance and foreign minister in the 12-member cabinet.
Most of the ministers, like Fayyad, are political independents and technocrats, with the exception of the interior minister, Abd al-Razzaq al-Yihya, a veteran Fatah figure and retired general with a reputation for toughness, who will be responsible for security forces. He held the same post under Yasser Arafat.
Abbas issued decrees outlawing the armed militias of Hamas and suspending clauses in the Palestinian Basic Law, which effectively serves as a constitution, that call for parliamentary approval of the new government. Hamas has a firm majority in the 132-seat Palestinian parliament, though 40 of its legislators are currently in Israeli jails.
Hamas has called the emergency government as illegitimate, insisting that the Hamas-dominated unity government, which Abbas dissolved, is in charge. A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the new government was a "conspiracy against the Palestinian people" that "serves Israel and the United States."
Saeb Erekat, a close aide to Abbas, said after the swearing-in ceremony that "in reality, Gaza is no longer under the control of the Palestinian Authority." He said it had been taken over by "a group of gangsters" and "separatists."
But he pledged that the leadership loyal to Abbas would not abandon Gaza and that it would maintain contact with international agencies and Israel to ensure that food, fuel and other supplies continued to reach the 1.5 million Palestinians there.
"If what happened in Gaza represents chaos and mutiny, the West Bank represents law and order," Erekat said. The West Bank, he said, will be ruled by "one authority and one gun."
Another aide to Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeina, said he believed that the United States would support the new government and that America and Israel would agree to lift the embargo imposed on the previous governments led by Hamas, which is defined as a terrorist organization by Israel and much of the West.
However, Dor Alon, a private Israeli energy company that supplies all of Gaza's gasoline, said it was stopping deliveries, Israel Radio said, though it would supply fuel for Gaza's electrical power station.
The Israeli infrastructure minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who oversees fuel supplies, told Army Radio: "We should simply increase the isolation of Gaza. I want to stop everything until we understand what is going on there."
Other reports said Dor Alon did not deliver the gasoline on Sunday because its trucks found nobody to receive it on the Palestinian side. Gaza is believed to have about a two-week supply of gasoline left.
At the Erez crossing on the Gaza-Israel border, as many as 1,000 people, most of them loyal to Fatah, remained in limbo, prevented by the Israelis from fleeing Gaza and afraid to turn back.
Some have been in the Gaza-Israel corridor for three days, since Hamas overran the last Fatah positions. "We are the boys of Fatah," said Muhammad Sharatha, 19, one of the youths there. "Now Fatah is destroyed; we are afraid of execution."
Dozens of senior Fatah leaders have been allowed to flee to the West Bank through Israel, but foot soldiers like Sharatha are trapped. Hamas declared an amnesty after the fighting, and urged the men to go home, but many expressed mistrust.
"We cannot live in Gaza," said Abu Ibrahim, 37, a Fatah security officer, waiting at the border with his wife and young children. "Even if I have to sleep here for a year, I will. In the end I want to get to Ramallah."
Israel's deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, told Israel Radio that those whose lives were deemed in danger would be taken out through Israel. But he added, about the others: "No one knows for sure who these people are. We can assume they are people who don't want to be in Gaza. Pretty soon there will be 1.5 million people who don't want to be in Gaza."
In the lobby of Ramallah's Grand Park Hotel, many of the Fatah refugees from Gaza, mostly middle-aged men, sat around coffee tables smoking nervously and awaiting news. A Fatah legislator from Gaza, Alaa Yaghi, said that he had arrived two days earlier and that he hoped his family would be able to join him soon.
Another of the refugees was Abu Ali Shaheen, a senior Fatah figure who survived an assassination attempt in November when gunmen fired at his car in Gaza City.
There was cautious optimism in Ramallah that the new government might improve the situation in the West Bank. "A lot of money will come in because of Salam Fayyad's relations with the West," said Mustafa Abu Salah, a 24-year-old lawyer, speaking of the new prime minister sworn in by Abbas. "Things will be very good in the West Bank and very bad in Gaza."
Naila Kassem, 30, was dressed in a black Islamic robe. "We are one people, not Fatah or Hamas," she said. But she, too, said she hoped that the new emergency government would benefit the people.
"There are houses here with no food," she said.