Hamas Assumes Control of Palestinian Parliament
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliot. A new session of the Palestinian Parliament opened today with the Islamist militants of Hamas now in the majority. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on the lawmakers to honor existing agreements with Israel, which Hamas rejects. NPR's Eric Westervelt was at today's session and has this report.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
It was not a typical first day of Parliament. At least 12 members of the 132-seat Palestinian legislature are in Israeli jails. Many of the lawmakers in the Gaza Strip are barred from traveling to the main Parliament site in the West Bank city of Ramallah. So a video link connected the two groups.
In Ramallah an Imam read from the Koran and urged unity after a fractious campaign that saw the long-dominant Fatah movement ousted from leadership. With God's blessings, the Imam chanted, try to be brothers to each other. The U.S.-backed Roadmap Peace Plan is in tatters. Authority President Mahmoud Abbas today told the assembled Parliament members that he remains committed to a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict with Israel. But he said the Palestinians reject all unilateral moves, a reference to last summer's non-negotiated Israeli pullout from Gaza. And Abbas had words of caution for Israel. He said continued occupation and settlement expansions in the West Bank will just produce more misery.
President MAHMOUD ABBAS (Palestine): (Through Translator) I tell them frankly that more checkpoints and settlements and assassinations and arrests and the separation wall will only lead to hatred, despair and continued conflict.
WESTERVELT: Abbas called for non-violent resistance to Israel. That line was met with tepid applause from Fatah members and glaring silence from Hamas lawmakers. Abbas asked Hamas to form a new government as quickly as possible. He's meeting with top Hamas officials tomorrow. Israel and the West have labeled Hamas a terrorist organization. They want the group to disarm, recognize Israel and honor past agreements. Abbas today cautioned the Islamists of Hamas to stand by existing deals with Israel.
President ABBAS: (Through Translator) I would like to remind the members of the new government of the need to respect all signed agreements.
WESTERVELT: Those agreements include the Oslo Accords and the Roadmap. Abbas did not, however, make his participation with the Hamas' Prime Minister or government contingent on Hamas recognizing those accords. Both Palestinians and Israelis have failed to live up to key provisions of the Roadmap, including disarming militant factions and a freeze on settlement expansions.
Many new Hamas Parliamentarians, including Nasser Abdel Jawad, rejected Abbas's call to honor agreements. Hamas in the long term is committed to Israel's destruction, and Jawad says a near-term truce with Israel is possible only if Israel pulls back to the borders it had before the Six Day Mid-East war nearly 40 years ago.
Mr. ABDEL JAWAD: (Hamas Parliamentarian): (Through Translator) Hamas has not reached a decision regarding historical Palestine and will not give up its claim for historical Palestine. But for an immediate truce Hamas wants Israel to return all land stolen since 1967.
WESTERVELT: So Hamas and President Abbas's Fatah are headed for a political clash over basic issues. Abbas today also sent some thinly veiled warnings to Hamas on key social issues. He spoke of expanding rights for Palestinian women and called for education that emphasizes quote "open-mindedness and free thinking." Hamas's stated long-term goals include establishing an Islamic state where Islamic law is dominant. Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, a centrist independent, says Abbas sent Hamas the right message.
HANAN ASHRAWI (Centrist Independent, Palestine): That they cannot take a 180-degree departure. They cannot renege, let's say, on signed agreement. And in a sense he's saying that any drastic departure is going to undermine the Palestinian question as a whole.
WESTERVELT: Israeli officials declined to comment today. The Jewish state is at a policy crossroads on how to respond to Hamas. Tomorrow acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets with his Cabinet to discuss its options. They could include tough new measures aimed at constricting the financial and political power of a new Hamas-dominated Palestinian authority. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Ramallah.