RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas promoted the idea of a Cabinet of technocrats as a way to ease crippling Western sanctions, but he pledged not to force it on Hamas, and the Islamic ruling party was cool to the idea.
Abbas addressed reporters for more than an hour at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah Tuesday evening. In his strongest endorsement yet of the technocrat idea of a Cabinet made up of professionals instead of politicians, he said it should be “considered seriously” as a way out of the current deadlock.
On Wednesday morning, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian militants as the army pushed into southern Gaza, the army and Palestinians reported.
Hamas swept to power in January parliamentary elections, unseating Abbas’ Fatah Party, which had controlled Palestinian political life for decades. But as soon as Hamas set up its government, the United States, European Union and Israel cut off funding, listing Hamas as a terror group because of its history of sending suicide bombers into Israel. Months of contacts over a unity government, bringing Fatah back to the Cabinet table, have broken down over Hamas’ refusal to accept international demands of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and endorsing past peace accords.
Elected separately in 2005, Abbas has the authority to dismiss the government, disperse the parliament and call new elections. However, polls show Fatah and Hamas virtually tied, making that a risky move. He told reporters that he would not move toward a technocrat government without Hamas approval. “I prefer it as a solution, because it does solve the problem, but there should be an agreement how long it should serve,” Abbas said.
Hamas, ruling with an absolute majority in the parliament, did not appear eager to adopt the idea.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said a broad-based coalition government is still the best option, adding, “if a national coalition government cannot shoulder the burden of meeting the demands of all our people, I don’t think that a technocrat government can carry this responsibility.”
An official close to Abbas said the Palestinian president did not set a deadline and did not appear to be in a hurry to bring he government crisis to a head. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
The Fatah-Hamas struggle, accompanied by severe economic hardships resulting from the Western aid cutoff, has sparked armed violence between rival security forces. At least 12 people have been killed in the clashes over the past two weeks.
Abbas said the new force of 5,700 armed men, fielded by Interior Minister Said Siyam of Hamas, is illegal. “There is no legitimacy for any force that is created anywhere so long as I didn’t approve it,” he said. The other security forces are loyal to Fatah.
Israeli-Palestinian violence continued in Gaza Wednesday morning. The Israeli army pushed into southern Gaza before dawn, killing two Palestinian militants, the army and Palestinians reported.
Israeli soldiers killed the two men as they approached army positions in Rafah, on the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt, an army spokesman said.
Palestinian security officials said Israeli infantry and tanks took over a swath of the Gaza-Egypt border before dawn Wednesday, including the Rafah border terminal. Troops carried out house-to-house searches and bulldozers levelled agricultural land near the border, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The army said Israeli forces were widening the scope of an ongoing operation in southern Gaza aimed at uncovering tunnels used by Palestinian militants to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip from Egypt. Two such tunnels were discovered in another area along the border early Tuesday morning, the army reported.
Israel has charged that militants have smuggled large quantities of weapons over the border since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last summer.
In northern Gaza Tuesday night, Palestinians reported that two Hamas gunmen were killed near the Jebaliya refugee camp during an exchange of fire with Israeli troops. But the army denied the report, saying there were no Israeli forces in the area at the time.
In clashes Tuesday in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot and killed four Palestinians. In three clashes in the northern West Bank on Tuesday, Israeli soldiers killed four Palestinians. In the city of Nablus, Palestinians said undercover soldiers opened fire on a car, killing a local leader of the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and his cousin. The Israeli military said the militant was responsible for attacks against Israelis. In the nearby town of Qabatiyeh, soldiers killed an Islamic Jihad militant. Also, soldiers fired at Palestinians who were throwing rocks at them, killing one, both sides said. The Israelis say they have discovered 13 such tunnels in the past three months. Israel charges that since it withdrew from Gaza a year ago, turning control of the border over to Egypt and the Palestinians, arms smuggling into Gaza has greatly increased.