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.

In addition, Israel will likely stop the monthly transfer of about $55 million in sales tax and customs fees it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, depriving the government of about 30 percent of its operating funds.

Israeli officials declined to comment on Abbas's speech, saying its contents would be taken into consideration at Sunday's cabinet meeting.

Although Israeli officials have warned that Hamas could seek funding from Israel's enemies, including Iran, should the roughly $1 billion in annual aid from Western donors cease, Abbas said, "We will not be led into an axis of any sort." President Bush called Iran part of "an axis of evil" in his 2004 State of the Union address.

There were few outward expressions of celebration Saturday either here or in Gaza, where much of the Hamas leadership remained. Only when Aziz Duwaik, a Hamas legislator, was elected parliamentary speaker did the meeting hall in Gaza erupt in raucous applause. Duwaik, an urban planning professor from Hebron, received 70 votes while 46 legislators abstained.

Only 116 of the 132 legislators attended the session, either in person or by video. Fourteen more are in prison -- all but one in Israel -- while two others are wanted by Israeli authorities and would not risk traveling in the West Bank. When the prisoners' names were called during the opening roll call, members of the audience held up their framed photographs from the rows of metal chairs.

Hamas legislators said they would begin forming a cabinet in the coming days, led most likely by Ismail Haniyeh, the party's consensus choice for prime minister. Abbas has the power to fire the prime minister and disband the cabinet, but not to dissolve parliament.

Fatah officials reiterated their position Saturday that they would not join a Hamas cabinet, saying their secular-nationalist program, which includes negotiations with Israel, is at odds with Hamas's political vision. Many of them have also said that Hamas should be left to suffer the political consequences alone as it tries to govern the occupied territories.

"For us this is not a matter of principle, but an issue of the central problem of governing," said Nasser Kidwa, the outgoing foreign minister from Fatah who attended the parliamentary session, although he is not a member. "At this point there is no question that we cannot join. But if they consider a different political program, then that's something else."

Hamas leaders have said they do not intend to alter their plans after joining the government, although some of them have suggested that a long-term truce with Israel is possible if it withdraws from all territory occupied in the 1967 Middle East War, including East Jerusalem. The party's "Change and Reform" ticket defeated Fatah on a platform that emphasized government reform after years of corrupt and inept administration by the former ruling party.

"It looks like we will have a bipolar reality," said Hanan Ashrawi, a legislator from the small Third Way movement that stressed anti-corruption and reform in its campaign. "But whether this leads to a larger clash between the president and Hamas, I don't know. Hamas at the moment seems to be trying to avoid such clashes."

As head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the recognized representative of Palestinians inside and outside the territories, Abbas remains in charge of peace policy. He called for a quick return to the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map.

Announced in 2003, the plan called for creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of last year. But the process has been dormant in recent years, and Hamas rejects the two-state solution it envisions.

Hamas has held up Israel's unilateral withdrawal last year from Gaza, where 8,500 Israeli settlers lived for nearly four decades among 1.3 million Palestinians, as evidence that its military strikes are more effective than negotiations.

But Abbas called Saturday for a revival of the PLO, which has lost influence since the Palestinian Authority's creation, to pursue peace talks that he said have been undermined by Israel's settlement construction, the security barrier rising between Israel and the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Israel's failure to leave Palestinian cities. He said, "I'd like to emphasize our full rejection of unilateralism."

"We are confident that there is no military solution to the conflict," Abbas said. "Negotiations between us as equal partners should put a long-due end to the cycle of violence."

Mouin Rabbani, senior Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group who attended the event here, said Abbas may be signaling a new strategy to minimize Hamas's influence.

"Is this part of an organized effort to marginalize the Palestinian parliament?" Rabbani said. "Abbas seems to be saying that it is not the formation of the government that's important. It's what the government does afterward that matters."

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