Israelis Poised For Ascent Of Hamas

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 18, 2006

JERUSALEM, Feb. 17 -- On the eve of Hamas's entry into the Palestinian government, Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and his senior advisers neared agreement Friday on a series of steps that would effectively isolate the Gaza Strip and deprive the nearly bankrupt Palestinian Authority of funding once the radical Islamic group forms a cabinet, according to Foreign Ministry officials.

Core members of Olmert's cabinet did not decide how to proceed after Saturday, when Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, becomes the majority bloc in the Palestinian parliament. The decision was postponed to give Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose fractured Fatah party will soon be a minority, the opportunity to address the incoming parliament without new Israeli policies as a backdrop.

"We don't want to preempt anything," said Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We want to see what the Palestinians are going to do Saturday -- what is said and what is done."

Olmert's cabinet is considering about a dozen policy options, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. Much of the debate Friday focused not only on which options to implement but also on their timing, the officials said.

The recommendations, which the cabinet is scheduled to decide on Sunday, include preventing the 4,000 Palestinians in Gaza who work in Israel from continuing to do so, tightening already restrictive procedures at crossing points between Gaza and Israel, canceling permits for Palestinian legislators to travel between the strip and the West Bank, and prohibiting further preparations to reopen Gaza's seaport and international airport. In addition, officials may decide to stop handing over the roughly $55 million a month in sales taxes and customs fees that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority -- transfers that account for about a third of the authority's operating budget.

Olmert decided Friday to prevent Hamas legislators in Gaza from attending the Saturday swearing-in ceremony for the new parliament in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The legislators, including some of Hamas's top leaders, will participate by teleconference.

The package of recommendations was compiled by Israeli officials responsible for the country's security and diplomacy, and it is being shaped in part by the politics of Israel's national election campaign. Officials involved in the discussion said the emerging response should not be viewed as punitive but as reflecting the security concerns that will arise when Hamas takes control of parliament and various ministries.

Israeli officials have said they will allow humanitarian aid to reach the West Bank and Gaza Strip and continue supplying the territories with electricity, a service some defense officials had suggested should end once Hamas joins the government.

But the Israeli moves under consideration would mark a sharp break with the Palestinian Authority and largely abandon Abbas, who as president of the authority maintains explicit control over its security services and has the power to fire the Hamas-appointed prime minister. They also point to Olmert's preferred path if he wins at the polls next month, setting the stage for further unilateral steps to separate Israel from the Palestinian population in the territories.

The Israeli strategy is designed to influence the Hamas leadership -- which has refused international demands that it renounce violence, recognize the Jewish state and abide by previous agreements -- before it forms a cabinet sometime next month. The Palestinian Authority had been dominated by Abbas's secular Fatah party until Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, won 74 of parliament's 132 seats in elections last month.

"There is an inextricable link between the larger questions about the future of the West Bank and the peace process and the steps we take in the next month," said an Israeli official who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the subject.

With Israel's elections less than six weeks away, Olmert is charting the country's approach to Hamas despite charges by political rivals that his Kadima party is responsible for its shocking victory. Opinion polls show Kadima winning as many as a third of the Israeli parliament's 120 seats in the March 28 elections, far more than its nearest challenger.


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