Hamas leader offers to resign to regain funding

Departure is seen as making way for `unity' Palestinian government

November 11, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP -- Hamas committed yesterday to folding its eight-month government if that would restore the international assistance that was cut off after it won national elections earlier this year.

In a speech, the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, said he would likely resign in the next "two or three weeks" to make way for a national unity government more acceptable to international donors than Hamas, the organization responsible for the deadliest attacks against Israel.

"When they put the siege on one hand, and having me the prime minister on the other, I said, `No: Let us end the siege and let us end the suffering of the Palestinian people,' " Haniyeh, 43, a former teacher and union official, told worshipers at prayers yesterday.

It was a public acknowledgment that Hamas had failed to run the Palestinian Authority on its own terms in the face of an American- and Israeli-led cutoff of funds and aid, and that Haniyeh and his government would soon be replaced by a "unity" government of technocrats, currently being negotiated with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas refused to meet the three conditions set out by the international community: to recognize the right of Israel to exist, to forswear violence and to accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements that imply a two-state solution.

In turn, Israel withheld more than $50 million a month in taxes and customs collected for the Palestinians, and the United States and Europe cut off direct aid to the Palestinian Authority.

The efforts of Hamas to bring in sufficient money from Arab supporters, especially given the reluctance of banks to challenge the Americans, have not been sufficient to pay salaries to thousands of employees dependent on the Palestinian Authority.

Haniyeh's public confirmation was not a complete surprise to his listeners, but it marked a symbolic public moment here: an acknowledgment of the difficulties Hamas faced, internally and with the outside world, as it tried to move from fighting to governing.

Much as the speech roused cheers at the mosque, and praise here for its apparent sacrifice, it was unclear whether Haniyeh's stated intentions could restart the flow of aid as Palestinians. On one hand, Haniyeh suggested that any new government of national unity would be able to satisfy the demands of Israel and other donors, which include recognizing Israel's right to exist.

At the same time, Haniyeh said that Hamas would remain a key player that would never waver from principle. This raises the question of whether a new government would be any more palatable to donors than the current one.

"We will not compromise," he told worshipers. "We are going ahead with a government that will not give political compromises."

Hamas has refused to recognize Israel's right to exist, for example, but it is unclear that any new government, many of whose key officials will be appointed by Hamas, will do so either, at least in any explicit way.

At a minimum, the speech seemed to burnish Hamas' populist credentials at a time when its support has been shrinking amid the economic hardship and still-high bloodshed, underscored by the deaths of 19 people here on Wednesday from an apparently errant Israeli artillery barrage. (Eighteen were killed in the initial incident; another, Basim Kafarna, 39, died of his injuries yesterday.)

"This is something new," Mohammad Abu Sweileh, 30, a cake baker, said joyously in the crowd at the mosque where Haniyeh spoke. "In the Arab world, leaders don't give up their positions."

For months, Hamas has been in negotiations with Fatah, the party led by Abbas, to form a national unity government of professionals and technocrats not immediately beholden to any party. In recent days, those talks seem to have picked up steam, and Haniyeh's announcement seemed a firm sign of hope that they may succeed.

Haniyeh said he expected more talks next week and that "within two or three weeks, we will announce joyful news."

In theory, such a government would be able to win back international aid that paid about half of the $165 million the Palestinian Authority needs every month to pay salaries and operating expenses, with the money the Israelis collect on behalf of the Palestinians making up a part of the remainder. Even so, the Palestinian government was running a deficit.

But theory aside, the three conditions cause distinct problems for Hamas, and experts disagree over whether the group can, in the end, stay true to its declared objective of creating a state including all of historical Palestine (including Israel) and also satisfy donors.

Hamas offers a long-term truce with an Israel in its pre-1967 borders, but has not repudiated its longer-term objectives.

Israeli officials have said they would not hand over the money they collect to a Palestinian government, led by anyone, that merely fudges the conditions.

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