Hamas and Fatah reported close to deal on unity rule

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 07-Nov-06 | Author: Greg Myre| Source: International Herald Tribune

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas (R) meets with Palestinian Prime Minister and the leader of the Islamic Hamas movement Ismail Haniya in Gaza City.

The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya failed Monday in their efforts to finalize a deal on a national unity government but planned to try again on Tuesday, aides said.

In another development, Israel began withdrawing tanks and other armored vehicles late Monday night from the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanun, Palestinian security officials said. The Israeli forces entered the town six days ago to halt Palestinian rocket fire and clashed daily with Palestinian militants.

It was not clear if all or just some of the Israeli forces were leaving, and the Israeli military did not immediately comment.

Abbas, who leads the secular Fatah movement, and Haniya, who leads the militant Islamic faction Hamas, seemed close to an agreement on a new Palestinian government that would be made up of professionals and technocrats not directly linked to either faction. The new government would seek to end the Palestinians' international isolation and win a restoration of Western assistance cut after Hamas came to power in the spring.

"There are issues to be discussed tomorrow and maybe the day after," said Nabil Aburdeineh, a spokesman for Abbas, as the talks in Gaza City broke up Monday night. "We agreed on one thing: a national government of professionals will be coming."

Abbas and Haniya announced Sept. 11 that they had reached a tentative agreement for a unity government. But the negotiations quickly stalled with increased fighting between armed Hamas and Fatah groups, and the meeting on Monday between the leaders was their first in weeks.

Abbas, whose headquarters are in Ramallah, in the West Bank, travels only occasionally to Gaza, where most senior Hamas leaders are based. Abbas's decision to make the trip signaled that the negotiations had reached an advanced stage.

Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent legislator brokering the talks, said earlier on Monday that the sides had already reached an agreement in principle.

"Both parties have realized that no one party can lead the Palestinians, and there is a need for a coalition that will include everyone," he said.

Hamas and Fatah did not say what issues were still dividing them. However, Aburdeineh said they had not yet discussed who might serve in a new cabinet.

A Hamas-linked Web site said Hamas wanted Bassem Naeem, the current health minister, to be the new prime minister. Dr. Naeem is not a Hamas member but is considered to have close ties to the group. Fatah may be unwilling to accept him in the prime minister's role.

Even if the Palestinians succeed in establishing a new government, it is not clear whether its policies, as yet undefined, will meet benchmarks set by the United States and the European Union, which are calling for the recognition of Israel, a renunciation of violence and an acceptance of previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. Nor is it clear whether aid will be restored.

The Palestinian political negotiations will not change the status of Abbas, who was elected president in January 2005 and will retain his post. However, Haniya and his Hamas-dominated cabinet would be expected to step down.

Haniya, in remarks to his cabinet on Monday afternoon, suggested that the government was on its way out, without saying so explicitly. "Palestine is bigger than all of us," he said, Reuters reported. "It is very easy for us to move to another position in the interests" of the Palestinian people, he said.

Under the proposal for the new government, Hamas and Fatah would each appoint several ministers to the cabinet, professionals and technocrats who could be aligned, but not directly affiliated, with any faction. Hamas would choose the prime minister, members of the group said. Smaller Palestinian parties would also be able to choose a number of ministers.

Haniya and his cabinet took power in March, two months after defeating Fatah in parliamentary elections. Fatah had dominated Palestinian politics for decades. However, the international isolation, the cutoff of money and internal Palestinian fighting have left Haniya and his cabinet unable to function as a government or pay the Palestinian Authority's 175,000 employees.

In northern Gaza, meanwhile, the Israeli forces and Palestinian militants battled for a sixth straight day before the Israelis began to leave Monday night. At least four Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, Palestinian medical workers said.

One of those killed was a 15-year-old schoolboy, while several other youths were wounded in an Israeli airstrike as they headed to school, the medical workers said. The Israeli military said its target had been militants retrieving launchers used to fire rockets at Israel a day earlier.

Also, Mervet Masoud, an 18-year-old Palestinian woman, blew herself up near several soldiers, killing herself and slightly wounding one soldier, the military said. "My mother, be patient," Ms. Masoud, a student at the Islamic University in Gaza City, said in a video released by Islamic Jihad after her attack. "Consider me a martyr and, God willing, we will meet in paradise."

Ms. Masoud said she carried out the bombing as revenge for an attack on a Gaza beach in June that killed seven Palestinians, five of them from one family. The Israeli military has said that while it was firing in the area, it did not hit the family.