Hamas takes reins, stands firm

Militants in new parliament reject any accord with Israel

February 19, 2006|By JOHN MURPHY | JOHN MURPHY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Members of the militant group Hamas formally took control of the Palestinian parliament yesterday and wasted no time in flexing their new political muscle by rejecting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' calls for the party to recognize past agreements with Israel and to continue peace talks.

But Hamas is likely to learn quickly that its political power, as the party responsible for forming a new government, will come at a price. Israel's Cabinet is expected to approve a series of measures today that are intended to isolate Hamas physically, financially and diplomatically, pressuring the party to moderate its policies.

During his speech to legislators, Abbas did not directly mention Israel's threatened sanctions, but he clearly had them in mind as he urged the Hamas-dominated parliament to support nonviolent solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"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," Abbas said.

He urged Hamas to endorse the Oslo Accords, the 1993 agreement signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that laid the foundations for a future Palestinian state, including establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has never accepted the accords, favoring a military campaign against Israel that has included scores of suicide bombings and other attacks in which hundreds of Israelis have died.

"We have not and will not accept any questioning of the accords' legitimacy," Abbas told members of parliament, who gathered here and in the Gaza Strip, where members followed the speech by video link. "Indeed, from the hour they were endorsed, they became a political reality to which we remain committed."

Hamas leaders swiftly dismissed Abbas' calls for moderation, setting the stage for a showdown between Abbas, who oversees Palestinian security and negotiations as the elected Palestinian leader, and Hamas as leader of the next government.

After the session, Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' likely choice for prime minister, said he would try to resolve their deep differences through dialogue.

"The speech by President Abbas included some positive points, but we do have differences about the political part of his speech, as he has his program and we have ours," Haniyeh said in Gaza, as reported by wire services. "These differences about our positions and political program will be resolved by dialogue and through coordination, in the interests of the Palestinian people."

Other Hamas leaders forecast no significant change in Hamas' positions.

"There is no way to negotiate with Israelis, because they don't want to negotiate with us," Khaled Suleiman, a spokesman for Hamas, said in Ramallah.

Existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements like Oslo would be subject to re-examination by Hamas, he said. "We will study these agreements and see whether it is suitable to the Palestinian reality," said Suleiman.

Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization, as do the United States and the European Union, and the government in Jerusalem had vowed to begin severing ties with the Palestinian Authority as soon as Hamas took office.

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is hoping the threat of sanctions will pressure Hamas to meet three demands: a renunciation of violence, formal recognition of Israel, and acceptance of the U.S.-sponsored peace plan known as the "road map," along with other existing Israeli-Palestinian agreements,

Among the most severe measures being considered by Israel are an end to future transfers of the estimated $55 million a month in tax revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority; prohibiting Palestinians from traveling between Gaza and the West Bank; prohibiting Palestinian laborers from commuting to jobs in Israel; and suspending permits for construction of a seaport in Gaza and repair of Gaza's airport.

The United States and other donors have similarly threatened to suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority or redirect it to international agencies. Any of those steps could have a devastating impact on the Palestinians' battered economy.

Abbas warned Israel and the international community yesterday not to work against the Palestinian people.

"The Palestinian people should not be punished for its democratic choice that was expressed through the ballot box," he said.

Ninety members of parliament were here, in Abbas' presidential compound; 34 gathered in Gaza City because of travel restrictions imposed by Israel.

A dozen members of the new 132-seat parliament, mostly members of Hamas, were not present because they are in Israeli prisons.

In Ramallah, members of Abbas' Fatah party drifted into the meeting room nearly an hour before the session began. Theirs was the party that had dominated Palestinian political life for 40 years under the late Yasser Arafat, and they were stunned last month by Hamas' victory.

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