Hamas Government to Step Down Soon

By Karin Laub

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Palestinian officials said Monday they will start forming a national unity government in coming days, but acknowledged that previous dealbreakers, such as control over the security forces and the fate of Hamas’ militia, remain unresolved.

Under the power-sharing deal reached last week in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the Hamas-led Cabinet is to step down in the coming days, to make way for a coalition government with the rival Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The two sides have agreed to a division of Cabinet posts, but have not yet agreed on who should fill the majority of Cabinet posts, including who will be interior minister and thus control security forces. Wrangling over such control contributed to deadly Hamas-Fatah clashes in Gaza in recent months.

The deal also did not settle the fate of Hamas’ 5,600-strong militia, which was formed last year over Abbas’ objections. Under one proposal, the force would be dismantled and its members assigned to various security branches, as part of an overall reform of the security, who are mainly loyal to Abbas.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, returned to Gaza on Monday and said his government planned to resign in the coming days to start the process of forming the new coalition. Haniyeh also appealed to the international community to accept the agreement and to lift economic sanctions on the Palestinian Authority, singling out the U.S., which has responded cautiously to the deal.

"The American people must review its position … to come into line with the Palestinian will," he said. "It must respect the framework of Palestinian democracy."

Under the Mecca deal, Hamas is to propose candidates for interior minister, and Abbas has the right to choose one of them. Haniyeh said Monday that Hamas has proposed two candidates, but has not heard from Abbas. Haniyeh, who has five weeks to put together a government, is to meet with Abbas on Thursday. Two key portfolios, foreign and finance, have already been assigned to independents.

Once the Hamas government resigns, Abbas would send a formal letter appointing Haniyeh to set up a new government, said Abbas aide Rafiq Husseini.

Abbas is also trying to win international support for the coalition deal, even though it falls short of demands that any Palestinian government recognize Israel and renounce violence. The Mecca deal says the coalition would `respect’ all agreements signed by the PLO, including those with Israel, but does not specifically recognize Israel’s right to exist.

"We hope the international community will look at the agreement from a positive side," Husseini said.

Palestinian officials hoped the deal would lead to a lifting of international sanctions that were imposed on the government after Hamas\’ election last year.

But foreign governments said they would wait to study the agreement and to see if the new government had the will – or ability – to prevent ongoing attacks on Israel, including rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. On Monday, Gaza militants launched four rockets into Israel, causing no injuries, the army said.

German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, whose country holds the rotating European Union presidency, said the bloc hoped the agreement would help end "the shedding of blood in Palestine."

EU foreign ministers, meeting Monday, did not commit to resuming direct aid.

During a meeting with the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would reserve judgment on the new Palestinian government until it is formed, participants said.

Up to now, he said, Abbas has been an opponent of Hamas. If the new government makes the same "inflated" demands of Israel, Olmert was quoted as saying, "it will show that (Abbas) has moved from his previous position, toward Hamas."

Olmert rejected calls to cancel a summit next week with Abbas and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, saying he wants to hear more from the Palestinian leader, said Yuval Steinitz, a committee member.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Rice’s trip is still on. He said the Palestinians have not yet fleshed out the details of their new government, and Rice would talk with Abbas and "see what shape and scope this agreement has taken."

Jordan’s King Abdullah II, meeting Monday with Abbas, appealed for a "unified position" between Fatah and Hamas: “It’s imperative (for Israel) to have a strong Palestinian partner capable of proceeding in the negotiating process until an independent Palestinian state is set up."

-AP reporter Ashraf Sweilam contributed to this story from Rafah, Egypt.

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