As divide deepens, Gaza’s fate uncertain

Special to The Times

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas installed an emergency government Sunday and declared the parliament led by his Hamas rivals powerless, a move that paves the way for an end to a Western financial embargo.

U.S. officials said they expected aid to flow quickly to the West Bank, but the fate of residents in the Gaza Strip remained unclear after Hamas militants seized military control of the tiny coastal area last week. American and Israeli officials said they would treat the territories as separate entities, supporting Abbas’ Fatah faction in the West Bank and squeezing Hamas in Gaza.

The emergence of rival governments in Gaza and the West Bank in effect reduced to factional strongholds what Palestinians had hoped would one day become their united, independent state.


But Abbas and his new prime minister, Salam Fayyad, pledged Sunday not to abandon Gaza’s 1.5 million residents. They said their government had a legal obligation to continue paying salaries to about 70,000 public employees in Hamas-controlled Gaza, including the police, many of whom were the targets of the Hamas takeover.

“You are in our hearts and at the top of our priorities and programs,” Fayyad said of Palestinians in Gaza during a speech in Ramallah after he took his oath.

Their pledges underscored the complexity of the rift created by Hamas’ military victory and raised questions about whether Western donors could exploit the divide to keep Gaza cut off.

Hamas’ lightning offensive last week capped a feud that had convulsed Gaza intermittently since the group defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections in January 2006. Because Hamas calls for Israel’s destruction, the West had boycotted the new government. To quell the violence and ease its diplomatic isolation, Hamas reluctantly brought Fatah into the Cabinet in March, but the alliance unraveled.

Last week’s fighting, which killed about 100 Palestinians, is likely to leave the fenced-in coastal strip further isolated and impoverished. On Sunday, an Israeli fuel company halted deliveries to gasoline stations in Gaza, and hundreds of fleeing residents jammed a border-crossing tunnel, only to find it closed on the Israeli side.

In Gaza, deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas called the new government illegal and insisted that he remained in charge.

But his promise to rein in militias, clans and criminal gangs hit a snag Sunday. The Army of Islam, a shadowy armed group, issued a videotape rejecting Haniyeh’s renewed pledge to force the release of Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent it claims to hold hostage. In the tape, broadcast by the satellite TV channel Al Jazeera, the group threatens to kill Johnston, who was seized March 12 in Gaza City.

The newly installed interim government is made up mostly of nominal independents who are close allies of Abbas. They include human rights activists and businesspeople. The new interior minister, Abdel Razak Yehiyeh, is a Fatah general who held that post under the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Two other Cabinet members are Christians, and two are women. Three are from Gaza but live in the West Bank.

During the swearing-in, Abbas decreed the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority legislature powerless to dismiss the new government or censure its actions. Constitutional experts questioned the decree’s legality but noted the legislature cannot meet for lack of a quorum because so many Hamas lawmakers are in Israeli jails.

“There is one authority, one law and one legitimate gun in all areas of our homeland,” Abbas declared in a speech.

Hamas spokesman Sami abu Zuhri called the new Cabinet the product of a “Zionist-American plot” to destroy the elected Hamas-led government.

Yet the divide is not as stark as it may seem.

Hamas still recognizes Abbas as president and says it does not want to run a ministate in Gaza. Haniyeh has asked civil servants loyal to the Abbas government to stay in their jobs. Abbas, who called the rift “temporary,” stopped short of outlawing Hamas as a political movement.

And although Abbas clearly hopes to isolate Hamas officials diplomatically and financially, he has instructed aides to plead with Israel and Western governments not to cut off fuel and humanitarian aid to Gaza.

“In reality you cannot separate the two territories completely,” said Diana Buttu, a political analyst and former advisor to Abbas. “Eventually, the two parties will have to find a mechanism to keep funds flowing to Gaza, and that will require international support.”

Israel and the United States, which brand Hamas a terrorist organization, might try to block such an arrangement, she said, by imposing restrictions on banks that transfer salaries from the West Bank to the accounts of public employees in Gaza. “There is going to be pressure on the new prime minister to choke off Gaza,” she said.

People close to Abbas say he believes a strategy of limited engagement with Gaza will pay off. Hani Masri, a newspaper columnist, said the president believes that even with salaries and humanitarian relief flowing, Hamas will prove unable to govern Gaza and will lose popular support.

“In the end they will be forced to seek mediators to reach Abbas,” said Ziad abu Zayyad, a former Fatah Cabinet minister. “But they must not be allowed to return to the Palestinian family unless they agree to new elections.”

That strategy depends on controlling violence in the West Bank, a daunting task in itself.

Abbas on Sunday outlawed Hamas’ paramilitary Executive Force and Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade, a move aimed at crushing them in the West Bank.

But his supporters said he also must rein in Fatah forces that have waged a vendetta of kidnapping and shooting against dozens of Hamas activists in the West Bank in recent days. The dominant Fatah militia, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, operates beyond Abbas’ control.

“We will work first to control lawlessness in the West Bank, swiftly and decisively,” said Riyad Maliki, information minister in the new government. “We should become a successful example. Then we will turn our attention to Gaza.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who traveled to the U.S. on Sunday for a meeting Tuesday with President Bush, welcomed the new Palestinian government. Olmert accepts Abbas as a negotiating partner and has held several meetings with him but considered the Palestinian leader’s alliance with Hamas an obstacle.

“We have a new opportunity ... that we haven’t had in a long time,” Olmert told reporters before leaving Israel. “A government that is not Hamas is a partner.”

The emergence of a Hamas-controlled Gaza nonetheless presents an unwelcome challenge to Israel. All of Gaza’s borders have been sealed since last week’s fighting, and Israeli soldiers had to fire rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades Sunday into a crowd of Palestinians to stop them from bursting through a fence at the Erez border crossing, witnesses said.

Residents of northern Israel were jolted later when at least two Katyusha rockets fell near Kiryat Shemona, damaging a car but causing no injuries. Reuters news agency quoted a security official in Lebanon as saying the rockets were fired by Palestinian militants in that country, the first reported cross-border attack since last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Special correspondent Abukhater reported from Ramallah and Times staff writer Boudreaux from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammaleh in Gaza City contributed to this report.