The appointment of a new cabinet is dismissed as an illegal move by Hamas and deepens divisions between factions.
Hamas official calls for new elections
DAMASCUS // The divide between rival Palestinian factions has been "deepened and cemented" by the appointment of a new unelected government, a senior spokesman for the Islamic resistance movement warns. Describing the current Palestinian political landscape as "chaos", Ali Barakeh, the deputy head of Hamas's Damascus office, said only new national elections could now end the impasse that has dangerously split the Palestinians for years. Last week Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and head of Fatah, announced a new government that excluded Hamas, the other major Palestinian power bloc, despite talks designed to create a national unity cabinet involving both main factions. Hamas, supported by Syria and Iran, currently controls the Gaza Strip. Fatah and the PA, backed by the West and favoured by Israel, controls the West Bank. The establishment of a new government was highly controversial, with Fatah's own elected parliamentary members refusing to take any official positions. The government, led by the prime minister, Salam Fayyad, was sworn in without a minister for prisoners affairs, seen as a major signal of its weakness given the importance of the post. "Constitutionally the move is illegal and we cannot recognise this government," said Mr Barakeh in an interview. "Mahmoud Abbas has torn up the Palestinian constitution. He is a dictator. He illegally holds his position as PA president and has illegally appointed a new government without even consulting his own party. "This is political chaos. How can any head of state ask the losing party in a general election to form a government? It is a cabinet that has cemented and deepened Palestinian divisions." Mr Abbas's term of office as PA president expired in January, when elections were due to be held. But the vote was postponed and he extended his tenure for a year, an act accepted by the international community but never agreed to by his Palestinian rivals. New national elections are scheduled for January, with the current government to act in a transitional role in the meantime, although its authority is limited to the West Bank. Mr Barakeh said Hamas would welcome earlier elections but, failing that, required that the world accept the result of the next ballot even if that means a Hamas win again. "After these elections, whether Fatah or Hamas wins, the international community should respect the choice of the Palestinian people," he said. "To those who say Hamas is not popular now, I say let's have the election tomorrow. The Israelis are worried we will win in the West Bank. If they think we will win, maybe there will be some effort to cancel the elections." After Hamas's 2006 election victory in the Gaza Strip, the West cut funding to the Palestinian authorities there, effectively taking part in a crippling three-year siege of the territory. Fighting soon broke out between the newly elected Hamas officials and the Fatah-controlled security services, with Hamas forcibly seizing Gaza in the summer of 2007. Subsequent efforts to bridge the divide have failed. The next set of negotiations were due to take place in Egypt in the first week of July, but that has been called into question by the appointment of the new Palestinian cabinet, which Hamas says has pre-empted the talks. In the meantime, joint Hamas and Fatah committees are due to meet in an effort to find common ground on the various issues that still split them. Mr Barakeh, effectively Hamas's vice consul to Syria, said Hamas will continue national reconciliation talks with Fatah. He said they could still succeed if fairly mediated. "Egypt is not impartial. It deliberately undermined Hamas in these talks." Egypt, which has a land border with the Gaza Strip, signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979. But Mr Barakeh insisted that there could be no compromise on key Hamas platforms: its refusal to formally recognise Israel and to renounce violent resistance to Israeli occupation, something that has so far been a condition for Hamas involvement in any transitional government. "Hamas will never recognise Israel," he said. "If we recognise Israel that means we give up 78 per cent of historical Palestinian lands which were occupied in 1948. And we will not give up resistance. In World War II the French resisted German occupation and we are doing the same. It is our right." The United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations - the Quartet mediating the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - have insisted Hamas recognise Israel and put down its weapons, something Fatah has already done. The stalled peace process has been largely predicated on that insistence, as well as a cessation of Israeli settlement expansion, which has never stopped. "Yasser Arafat recognised Israel and what did he get in exchange for that?" Mr Barakeh said. "Did he get a Palestinian state even in the West Bank and Gaza? No. All those efforts were blocked. Are we expected to repeat those same mistakes? "Hamas is prepared to recognise agreements between the PA and Israel, by which we mean we still respect them and not block them but also not endorse them. We will also accept the Prisoners Document to establish a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital, with illegal settlements to be dismantled and refugees given the right to return. "We consider those to be concessions. But the Quartet wants more than this, they want us to give up our right to resistance before this occupation is ended and to recognise Israel. This we will not do. It is impossible for us to meet the Quartet conditions." The 2006 Prisoners Document is an 18-point plan that calls for Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders and the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It was interpreted in some circles as implying Hamas's acceptance of Israel's existence within its 1948 borders, although it did not include formal recognition. Critics accuse Hamas of trying to exploit ambiguity over the issue and Mr Barakeh, whose father was born in a Palestinian village now inside Israel, said he would one day return to live there, insisting it was not and would never be Israeli land. email@example.com