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Abbas Swears In a New Palestinian Government

JERUSALEM — President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority swore in a transitional government on Monday intended to unify the West Bank and Gaza after seven years of division, though the run-up was marred by last-minute disputes over its composition.

The move is likely to complicate further the Palestinians’ already fraught relations with Israel and put them under international scrutiny because the new government is supported by Hamas, the Islamic militant group that is designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, the European Union and others.

The new government is the result of a reconciliation pact reached in April between the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is dominated by Mr. Abbas’s mainstream nationalist Fatah faction, and Hamas, which has been in control of Gaza since 2007.

Israeli officials said that no decisions had been taken regarding sanctions against the new government, but the cabinet was expected to meet to discuss options.

Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, a professor of linguistics who has held the top post in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority government for the past year, retains his position. The government is composed of an additional 16 ministers described by Palestinian officials as technocrats — professionals who are members of neither Fatah nor Hamas. Three of them are women; about half served in the last Palestinian Authority government.

The new government is meant to prepare for elections in six months or more.

The swearing-in ceremony at Mr. Abbas’s headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah took 10 minutes. Each minister took an oath and shook hands with Mr. Abbas and Mr. Hamdallah.

“We have ended a black time for our Palestinian people,” Mr. Abbas said. “Today we restore our national unity, the unity of our institutions.”

He added: “The Palestinian people will be united.”

But Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official, told reporters in Gaza that only four of the ministers were proposed by his group.

And four of the ministers, residents of Gaza, were unable to attend. Israel refused to issue permits for three of them, who had applied ahead of time, to pass through its territory, a sign that the physical split between the West Bank and Gaza was likely to remain in force.

Mr. Abbas said the government would follow his political program in support of a negotiated, two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian officials said it would also abide by international principles laid down by world powers, including the recognition of Israel’s right to exist, the renunciation of violence, and the acceptance of all previous signed agreements between the P.L.O. and Israel. Hamas itself has not accepted these conditions.

In Gaza, Ismail Haniya, the leader of the outgoing Hamas government there, said, “Today we are leaving this government after seven years of steadfastness during which we faced political and economic problems.”

“We are leaving our chairs but not our role,” he said, adding that he was standing down “willingly and in response to our national responsibilities.”

The State Department has said that the United States, which is scheduled to provide $440 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority this year, will monitor the situation closely and judge any government based on its composition, policy and actions. The European Union, which gives substantial aid to the authority, has said it will continue direct financial assistance so long as the new government is technocratic and upholds the international principles.

But Israel says the new government “rests on Hamas” and has called on the international community not to embrace it.

On Monday, hours before the swearing-in, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, told reporters in Jerusalem that the new government was “illegitimate” and did not live up to the previous signed agreements with Israel.

One of the fundamental principles of the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s, he said, was that territory handed over to the Palestinians would be demilitarized.

“Currently, however, we estimate that there are between 11,000 and 12,000 missiles and rockets in Gaza, as well as thousands of mortar shells, some anti-tank and antiaircraft missiles,” Mr. Steinitz said, adding that many of the weapons were smuggled into Gaza from Iran.

“One could expect that Abu Mazen would immediately announce that he will begin to dismantle those 12,000 Iranian missiles and rockets,” he said, referring to Mr. Abbas by his popular name. “If not, then actually you have a Palestinian government no longer committed to the principle of demilitarization.”

Earlier Monday, the Israeli air force struck what the military described as “two terror sites” in the Gaza Strip following two rocket attacks against Israel in the last two days. No injuries were reported on either side.

Ahmad Majdalani, a member of the P.L.O.’s executive committee, said Monday that Israel was sparing no attempt “to incite against the government” and to turn the international community against it. “We believe that ending the division will support the peace process,” he told the official Voice of Palestine radio.

Khalil Shikaki, a prominent Palestinian political analyst and pollster based in Ramallah, said Hamas had shown a surprising amount of flexibility in its demands regarding the government.

“The reconciliation process is moving on and Hamas seems to be making greater concessions on this than Fatah,” he said by telephone. That, he said, was an indication of Hamas’s weakness. But Mr. Shikaki added that Hamas was also getting important benefits, including holding on to its security forces in Gaza, while one of the advantages of the deal for Mr. Abbas was that “he now can claim that he speaks for both the West Bank and Gaza.”

Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006. A year later it took control of Gaza after a brief but bloody factional war there, routing Mr. Abbas’s forces and confining his authority to parts of the West Bank. The schism has been highly unpopular among the Palestinian public, though the latest unity deal brings uncertainty with it.

“Before this reconciliation it was a black-and-white situation,” said Abdel Hadi Tulayb, 52, a taxi driver in Ramallah. “Fatah is good and Hamas is bad, or vice versa. Now, we are united, but we don’t know what will happen later.”

Many Palestinians expressed hope that the deal would improve their economic situation, though others said they were skeptical.

“I don’t expect any positive results from this government,” said Shadi Hani, 29, a construction worker in Ramallah. “We want to work in Israel and we are like beggars. I cannot go to Israel to work — I need a permit.”

Previous attempts at national unity have fizzled even before they reached the stage of forming a government, and on Monday, there were already signs of deep discord.

The sides are divided over the issues of government representation for Palestinians who are held in Israeli jails and whether the Palestinian Authority’s security coordination with Israel should continue.

Mr. Abbas has made it clear that he wants to maintain the security coordination. But Fathi Hammad, the outgoing interior minister of the former Hamas government in Gaza, called on the authority at his farewell party at a Gaza hotel to cut off the coordination with Israel “irreversibly.”

Kobi Michael, a former head of the Palestinian desk at the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and now a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said he expected the security coordination would continue at the same level because “it is a core strategic interest of both sides.”

The Palestinian Authority, he wrote in an email, still “needs protection from Hamas, which remains a political and military threat.”

Mkhaimer Abusaada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said that Hamas and its constituency were unhappy with Mr. Abbas’s conduct in forming the government.

“Hamas has given up on many, many issues,” he said in a telephone interview. “They feel that they have been neglected by Abu Mazen and that Abu Mazen is humiliating them through this formation of this government.”

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(via NY Times)