Palestinian Unity Would Pose New Headaches

Rival Palestinian leaders met in Cairo this week to discuss prospects for a reconciled government. For more than four years, the Palestinian Authority has governed the West Bank, while the militant Islamist group, Hamas, has ruled the Gaza Strip. But any government that included Hamas would face serious obstacles.

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Rival Palestinian leaders met in Cairo this week to discuss the prospects of a unified government. For more than four years, Palestinians have been divided. On one side is the West Bank, governed by the Palestinian Authority. On the other, the Gaza Strip, ruled by the militant Islamist group Hamas. Earlier this year, the two announced they would reconcile.

But, as Sheera Frenkel reports, not everyone is happy about that idea.

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SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: News reports on the meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal flash on the screen in Hanan Ashrawi's Ramallah office. Ashrawi, a Palestinian lawmaker, has been closely involved in negotiations to heal the rift between the two factions. She says she has no doubt that the Palestinian public wants to see them reconciled.

DR. HANAN ASHRAWI: I think reconciliation is something that is badly needed because we really need to empower ourselves, and we need to repair our democracy and our political system as a whole.

FRENKEL: Ashrawi says the split has been a key stumbling block in the Palestinian push for statehood recognition at the United Nations. The two sides are now working on plans for unified interim government, followed by parliamentary elections in May of next year. But some here say reconciliation will present new problems.

Azzam Abu Bakr is a member of the Palestinian foreign relations council in Ramallah.

AZZAM ABU BAKR: (Through Translator) There are groups that will only help us if we remain disunited. They say this is a prerequisite for continuing aid to the Palestinians.

FRENKEL: The United States and the European Union have both warned that they will not work with a government that includes Hamas, unless the Islamist group recognizes Israel, renounces violence, and agrees to abide by previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

In Washington, lawmakers have also threatened to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid if the Palestinians form of government that includes that includes Hamas, which is on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Abu Bakr accuses the U.S. of trying to blackmail the Palestinians.

BAKR: (Through Translator) The money cannot be a sword pointed at our necks. If they say we only get the money if we stayed disunited, then go ahead and cut our necks. Our government might go bankrupt and break apart, but the Palestinians have always found a way to persevere.

FRENKEL: Israel, he points out, has been withholding funds for months. Over the summer, Israeli officials announced that they would freeze the transfer of tax and customs revenues to the Palestinian Authority. This was in response to the Palestinians push for U.N. recognition. Israeli officials now say that they will maintain the freeze if Hamas is brought into the Palestinian government. So far, the Israeli move has cost the Palestinian Authority more than $100 million.

In the West Bank, many government employees say they are already feeling the pinch. They only received partial salaries in the months of August, September and October. Twenty-five-year-old office worker Sama Hilawi is one of them

SAMA HILAWI: (Through Translator) I have not had my salary in three months. My husband had to take out a loan. I'm feeling panicked. I've heard that maybe because of the reconciliation they will have to start cutting jobs.

FRENKEL: But she says she's accustomed to the panic. Every time there is a new Palestinian initiative, she says, there are threats to international aid money and jobs. Hilawi thinks that Palestinian leaders should go ahead and create a united government. It's the first step she says towards the united state.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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