Hamas Takes Control of Palestinian Parliament

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 18, 2006; 4:00 PM

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Feb. 18 -- The radical Islamic group Hamas took control of the Palestinian parliament Saturday during a somber swearing-in ceremony, and legislators from the new majority quickly made clear that they would not abide by signed agreements that recognize Israel's right to exist.

In a speech to the new 132-seat parliament, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas staunchly defended past agreements with Israel, including the 1993 Oslo accords that created the Palestinian Authority and legislature that Hamas entered Saturday. Abbas, the Palestinian Authority's president, called for the immediate renewal of negotiations with the goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, declaring "there is a Palestinian partner" for such talks.

"We, as presidency and government, will continue our commitment to the negotiation process as the sole political, pragmatic and strategic choice through which we reap the fruit of our struggle and sacrifices over the long decades," Abbas told legislators gathered here in the government compound known as the Muqata, as well as those who participated by teleconference from the Gaza Strip because Israel refused to allow them to travel to the West Bank.

Past agreements with Israel were backed by Abbas' Fatah party, now a minority for the first time. Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, maintains that negotiations have failed to achieve Palestinian independence and has favored an armed campaign that has included more than 50 suicide attacks inside Israel in the past six years.

"As we depend on the negotiation process as a political choice, we should continue to develop other forms of peaceful popular struggle," said Abbas, who retains presidential powers over the security services, diplomacy and the cabinet.

During his 50-minute speech, Abbas did not threaten to deny Hamas the right to form the next cabinet if it fails to renounce violence, recognize the Jewish state and abide by past agreements, an ultimatum Israeli officials had hoped he would deliver as they consider economic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority. He said Hamas would choose the next prime minister and form the cabinet after winning a 74-seat parliamentary majority in elections last month that created what he called "a new political reality."

But his speech gave shape to the political conflict ahead as he and Hamas, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement, struggle to advance their vastly different programs.

Abbas called for consolidating the various Palestinian militias into the state security services, reviving peace negotiations and making a commitment to religious pluralism. Each conflicts to some degree with Hamas' long-term vision of an Islamic state on land that now includes Israel.

"We respect the president, but that does not mean we agree with everything he said," said Naif Rajoub, a Hamas legislator from the West Bank City of Hebron. "Oslo has died."

Partisan rivalry is running high inside the Palestinian Authority, and Israel is leading a diplomatic effort to politically and financially isolate the authority from the international funding on which it relies for survival. An estimated 1 million Palestinians depend on Palestinian Authority paychecks for their livelihood.

The Israeli cabinet is scheduled to vote Sunday on a series of policy options that would effectively cut off the Gaza Strip and withhold funds from the Palestinian government.

The cabinet may decide to prevent 4,000 Palestinians in Gaza who work in Israel from continuing to do so, tighten already difficult crossing procedures into Israel from Gaza and the West Bank, and cancel the permits that Palestinian legislators must have to travel between the two territories.

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