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The Palestinian parliament yesterday approved a new power-sharing government it hopes will end months of factional violence, economic sanctions and international isolation, but Israel's prime minister today ruled out any contact with the new government, and most Western powers seem prepared to continue their boycott as well.
The new government also faces enormous challenges imposing order, and in Gaza a recent attack on a United Nations convoy raises new security concerns. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: For now anyway, the new Fatah-Hamas coalition has reduced the factional street battles and bloodshed that became a predictable cycle of Gaza life during the last year, but to survive, the Palestinian unity government will have to deliver on lifting crippling economic sanctions. Hundreds of millions in Western aid, the backbone of the fragile Palestinian economy, was cut off after the terrorist-listed Hamas won last year's elections.
Schools, hospitals, cabinet ministries and security forces all suffered. In a speech to lawmakers Saturday in Gaza, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah made an impassioned plea for an end to sanctions, for non-violence, and a negotiated peace with Israel.
President MAHMOUD ABBAS (Palestinian Territories): (Through translator) We reconfirm that we reject all forms of violence, and we seek a just and comprehensive two-state peace solution, negotiations on which we hope will be resumed again.
WESTERVELT: If Palestinians are to move forward toward a negotiated peace with Israel, the new government needs more than the sloganeering Hamas leader Ismail Haniya offered in Saturday's parliamentary speech, says Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator and a Fatah member.
Hamas has tempered its platform over the last year, Erekat says, but needs to go further, what he calls the extra mile.
Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Fatah): I hope that Mr. Haniya will act like a prime minister for all the Palestinians and not as a prime minister of Hamas and take the extra, extra mile in terms of accepting openly the two-state solution, including recognizing Israel and renouncing violence, and moving in the direction of accepting all obligations of the PLO, including agreements signed with Israel.
WESTERVELT: Israel and Western powers have expressed disappointment the new Palestinian government does not meet those key international demands. Reading the new political platform to lawmakers Saturday, Prime Minister Haniyeh of Hamas called for expanding the Gaza cease-fire with Israel to include the West Bank. Haniyeh also said the platform, quote, "affirms the legitimate right of resistance against Israel in all its forms." Israeli officials labeled that call for resistance an endorsement of terror.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today reaffirmed that Israel will shun the new government. However, Israel will maintain a limited dialogue with President Abbas, says spokeswoman Mary Issen(ph), but only on basic day-to-day humanitarian issues.
Ms. MARY ISSEN (Israeli Government Spokesperson): But not on issues of substance, not about negotiating a settlement. Sadly, we won't be able to do that as long as he has a government that that he just appointed, which so clearly does not recognize Israel and thinks that they can achieve a state through terrorists, through violence.
WESTERVELT: In spite of Israel's firm stance, Palestinians are hoping some Western governments will now work with non-Hamas members of the new coalition. U.S. consulate officials in Jerusalem today said they won't rule that out but reaffirmed that the year-old ban on direct aid to the Palestinian government will remain in place.
In Gaza, meantime, the new government faces huge hurdles implementing even basic law and order. Late Friday, a clearly marked United Nations convoy carrying Gaza relief director John Ging was attacked in an apparent kidnapping attempt. Masked gunmen blocked the road and strafed the U.N. armored vehicles with automatic weapons fire before the convoy managed to flee.
Mr. JOHN GING (Director, U.N. Relief and Works Agency, Gaza): Yes, another on unprecedented development in the direction of further lawlessness.
WESTERVELT: John Ging says the U.N. wants the new government to stop merely talking about security and show real progress on the ground. Ging notes that the U.N. agency that was attacked provides weekly food aid, health care and education to nearly one million Palestinian refugees across Gaza.
Mr. GING: So we are very committed to continue with that but we have to have a safe and secure environment. And now the test is whether this government will be (unintelligible) that is what we want to see happen.
WESTERVELT: There is still no word on Gaza-based BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped by masked gunmen nearly one week ago.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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