Abbas Asserts Fatah Rule in West Bank

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swore in an emergency government days after Hamas militants seized control of the Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders condemned the move and insisted that the Fatah-Hamas unity government formed in March remains in charge of the Palestinian Authority.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's get the latest on the battle over the control of Palestinian territories. What we have is Hamas in charge of the Gaza Strip. Fatah, a different group led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is still in charge in the West Bank. Now, in the West Bank, in the town of Ramallah, Mahmoud Abbas has sworn in an emergency government, and that would replace an older government, which includes his rivals Hamas. Hamas leaders condemned that move.

NPR's Linda Gradstein is covering this story from Jerusalem. And Linda, I want to bring another player in here; we've been just talking about the two different Palestinian groups. In between them lies Israel. What is Israel doing about all this battling?

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is actually in Washington. He meets President Bush tomorrow. En route, Olmert said that the new Palestinian government in the West Bank headed by Mahmoud Abbas who Israel sees as a moderate offers new opportunities for Israel and that Israel is going to try to bolster that new government. One of the ways it's going to do this is by releasing hundreds of millions of dollars in tax and customs revenues that Israel has collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, but has frozen since Hamas took power 15 months ago.

The other thing that Abbas is apparently asking for is a massive release of Palestinian prisoners, and especially the release of Marwan Barghouti. He is a Fatah leader, very charismatic, very popular, who is serving five life terms in Israel for involvement in attacks that killed Israelis. Abbas is saying if you really want to bolster me, you know, then release prisoners and let me show Palestinians that I can make life better for them.

INSKEEP: Oh, because Abbas is trying to strengthen his political position among Palestinians at the same that they've had this military losses.

GRADSTEIN: That's right. I mean Fatah in Gaza was really routed very quickly. It really was a question of two days and Fatah no longer existed in Gaza. In the West Bank, Fatah's trying to consolidate its position there. The new prime minister of the Abbas government in the West Bank is Salam Fayyad. And yesterday, when he was sworn in, he said that his government represents Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas says its government represents Palestinians in Gaza and that the former unity government still exists. So it's really very unclear how this whole thing is going to work.

INSKEEP: So you've got these two Palestinian governments, one of which is one that the Israelis have been willing to support, the other is Hamas controlling Gaza. What is Israel doing there?

GRADSTEIN: Well, Israel says that it will not have anything to do with that government. The situation is very complicated because Israel supplies water, electricity and fuel to Gaza. So is Israel just going to cut these things off? Prime Minister Olmert said he does not want a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. However, electricity in Gaza is already spotty. I've heard that the main hospital in Gaza city, Shifa, is operating at a 120 percent capacity. There are already some shortages of medicines and there's only enough food for about ten more days.

INSKEEP: So as all this is happening, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in the United States. He's meeting with President Bush this week. What levers do they have to pull here that haven't already been pulled?

GRADSTEIN: Well, one thing is the release of hundreds of millions of dollars in frozen tax revenues. The other thing is that there's been an international boycott since Hamas took over and it's very possible that at the Olmert-Bush meeting, the United States will announce that it's renewing aid as well to the Palestinian Authority.

INSKEEP: Renewing aid to the side they favor, not to the Hamas part of it.

GRADSTEIN: Right, not to Hamas. In other words, to the West Bank. The question is, can Abbas use that money in the West Bank and not in Gaza without being criticized a lot by Palestinians in Gaza. The situation is Gaza is actually worse. The other things that Israel could do, there are about 500 roadblocks in the West Bank that severely hamper Palestinians' freedom of movement. They could lift some of those roadblocks. And Olmert says that he wants to do all of those things, but the other thing that Abbas really wants is a prisoner release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails - that one I'm not sure Olmert is going to be willing to do.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Linda Gradstein is in Jerusalem. Linda, thanks very much.

GRADSTEIN: Thank you, Steve.

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