Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced on Monday that he would direct the Palestinian Central Elections Commission to start preparing for holding presidential and parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories.

Abbas made the announcement as he chaired the first meeting of the Palestinian unity government, which was sworn in in Ramallah earlier in the day.

"The government's task is to facilitate the issue of elections, which will take place within six months as agreed [between Fatah and Hamas]," Abbas said.

In a televised speech that was broadcast on Palestine TV immediately after the inauguration ceremony, Abbas said that the unity government would serve as an interim government. Its main mission, he said, would be to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections.

Abbas declared the "end of the era of division" among the Palestinians which, he said, has caused catastrophic damage to the Palestinian cause over the past seven years.

Abbas said that the unity government, like previous ones, would be committed to his political program and agreements signed with Israel.

The unity government, he said, would work to improve the living conditions of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. He hinted that he was planning to visit soon.

Abbas said that the PLO, and not the unity government, which consists of 17 ministers, would remain in charge of the negotiations with Israel Dismissing Israeli opposition to the Fatah-Hamas unity government, Abbas said that this would make him even more determined to pursue reconciliation with Hamas.

He accused Israel of seeking to prevent Palestinian unity “so that it could continue to confiscate lands, build settlements and ‘Judaize’ Jerusalem.”

Abbas repeated his threat to respond “appropriately” to any Israeli measures that harm the interests of the Palestinians.

However, he stressed that he does not seek an escalation of tensions.

Abbas said that Israel has failed to convince the international community that Israel is credible.

“In the past, Israel used the division [between Fatah and Hamas] to justify the lack of progress in the peace talks,” he said.

“Today, Israel is using the end of the division as an excuse to avoid peace. We will face many difficulties, but we believe that the train of reconciliation has set on its journey and no one can stop it because our people won’t allow this to happen once again.”

Abbas concluded his speech by announcing the he was presenting the unity agreement as a “gift to souls of our martyrs who fell so that Pales-tine could live.”

He said it was also a gift to“heroic” Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Although it is referred to as a unity government, the new government, which is headed by Rami Hamdallah, does not include members of Fatah or Hamas.

Nine ministers who served in the West Bank government of Hamdallah were appointed in the government, which has eight new ministers.

The hours that preceded the announcement of the new government witnessed a crisis that erupted between Fatah and Hamas over Abbas’s deci-sion to cancel the Prisoners’ Affairs Ministry and turn it into a commission belonging to the PLO.

In the end, the two parties agreed that the controversial portfolio would be handed over to Hamdallah, who is serving as interior minister.

But Hamdallah declared shortly after the inauguration that the Prisoners’ Affairs Ministry has been turned into a commission that would be temporarily run by Shawki al-Issa, the new Social Welfare minister.

Hamas reacted by criticizing the decision as a breach of the agreements and understandings reached with faith.

Hamas spokesman Salah Bardaweel said that his movement was now considering an “appropriate” response to the decision to cancel the ministry.

Palestinian sources in Ramallah said that the agreement over the ministry was reached following the intervention of Qatar.

Earlier, Hamas spokesmen said that the unity government would not be announced unless it included the Prisoners’ Affairs Ministry.

Hours before the announcement of the new government, Hamas informed Fatah that it would not approve of any government that excludes the Ministry for Prisoners’ Affairs.

Outgoing Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh also delivered a speech following the announcement of the unity government.

He started by apologizing to anyone who was harmed during his government’s term in office.

Haniyeh said that although he was leaving his post, he would continue to serve his people and would not leave the Gaza Strip.

He said that Hamas agreed to the unity government although it had reservations about Riad al-Malki retaining his job as foreign minister.

The new government, he added, was facing many challenges, first and foremost the “reconstruction of the Gaza Strip and lifting the [Israeli] blockade.”

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