Hamas Picks a First-Day Fight

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

JERUSALEM, March 6 -- In its first working session, the Hamas-controlled Palestinian legislature swiftly asserted its new political clout Monday by nullifying a law approved by the previous parliament that gave new powers to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the rival Fatah movement.

The law was passed on the final day of the lame-duck legislature dominated by Fatah, the secular-nationalist movement that Hamas trounced in the Jan. 25 parliamentary elections. Fatah lawmakers called the Hamas vote to void the law illegal and stormed out of parliament in protest.

The measure gave Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, power to name members of a constitutional court without parliamentary approval. The panel rules on the legality of legislation, meaning that Hamas's program could have been blocked if Abbas had packed the court with Fatah members.

The incoming Hamas lawmakers had vowed to reverse the law, which they denounced as an illegitimate attempt to strengthen Abbas's power before its new majority took office.

But in fulfilling that pledge Monday, as the parliament met simultaneously in the West Bank city of Ramallah and the Gaza Strip through a video feed, Hamas infuriated Fatah lawmakers whom they are courting to join a coalition cabinet.

"They got beaten in the first round," said Ahmed al-Hajj Ali, a Hamas legislator. "This is the first day of the victory of law that has been absent from the Palestinian arena for many, many years."

Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, is designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union for its declared war against Israel. The party controls 74 of parliament's 132 seats. But it is seeking to bring Fatah into the cabinet to assuage international concern over its political agenda, which has jeopardized the government's lifeblood foreign aid.

Hamas rejects a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the approach endorsed by Fatah. The new cabinet is due to be installed by March 28, but so far, Fatah leaders have said they would rather see Hamas fail on its own than join the cabinet.

Saeb Erekat, a Fatah legislator, said Hamas's decision to void legislation passed by a previous parliament was "absolutely unconstitutional." After meeting with Abbas on Monday evening, Erekat said Fatah would ask the Palestinian High Court on Tuesday to overturn the vote nullifying the law.

"This is a new day in the parliament, a whole new ballgame," Erekat said. "We have a government, an opposition, and Hamas in the driver's seat. If we can manage this, we will be doing a great job. But the question is how do we manage it."

In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, an Israeli airstrike Monday killed five Palestinians and wounded eight others. Israeli military aircraft fired on a car carrying two senior members of the radical Islamic Jihad movement, the group chiefly responsible for the daily rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel.

Three bystanders were also killed, including an 8-year-old boy, identified as Raed al-Batesh, and Ahmed al-Sousi, 17.

Special correspondent Sufian Taha contributed to this report.


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