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Fatah leaders have appealed to Israel to halt security measures against Fatah gunmen in the West Bank and promised to continue their massive crackdown on Hamas there, Palestinian Authority officials here said on Sunday.
The appeal was delivered to the government via US and European officials who met with several Fatah leaders here in the past few days, the officials told The Jerusalem Post.
The officials did not say whether Israel had accepted the request. However, sources close to Fatah pointed out that many of their gunmen had already begun operating against Hamas figures and institutions in rural areas under Israeli security control.
Also Sunday, Masked gunmen in Gaza City set fire to the Latin Church and went on a rampage inside the Rosary Sisters School on Sunday.
The attack was the first of its kind since Hamas took full control over the Gaza Strip last week.
"Israel must help us get rid of Hamas in the West Bank," said a top Fatah official. "Israel must stop chasing our men so that we can succeed in our mission."
The message came as a new PA cabinet was sworn in during a ceremony at the Mukata "presidential" compound in Ramallah.
As of Sunday, the Palestinians have two governments - one in the Gaza Strip headed by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and the second in the West Bank headed by Fatah's Prime Minister Salaam Fayad.
Hamas dismissed the new "emergency" cabinet as illegal and said its own cabinet would continue to run the affairs of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians here reacted with mixed feelings to the formation of the new government. Some criticized PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for not appointing enough Fatah officials as ministers, while others expressed hope that Fayad's cabinet would be able to lift the financial sanctions imposed on the PA after Hamas came to power in March 2006.
In a move that is likely to deepen the rift between Fatah and Hamas, Abbas issued a series of "presidential" decrees outlawing the Hamas's armed wing, the Izaddin Kassam, and the movement's paramilitary Executive Force.
"The Executive Force and the Hamas militias have been outlawed because they carried out an armed revolt against the legitimate institutions of the Palestinian Authority," the decrees read. "Anyone who is linked to them or deals with them will be punished in accordance with the law."
Addressing the new ministers, Abbas said they would also be responsible for the Gaza Strip.
"The cabinet will assume its full responsibilities not only in the West Bank, but in the Gaza Strip as well," he said. "We decided to form this cabinet after Hamas staged a coup against the Palestinian Authority and its legitimate institutions."
Leaders of the Christian community in the Strip expressed deep concern over the fate of the Christians living under Hamas. They said most of them wanted to leave the Gaza out of fear for their lives.
An estimated 2,500 Christians live in Gaza City.
Abbas condemned the attack as barbaric and despicable, and blamed Hamas militiamen.
"The torching of the church is one of the fruits of the bloody coup that Hamas staged in the Gaza Strip," he said.
Several Christian institutions in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been targeted by masked gunmen over the past few months.
Last April, a bookstore run by the Bible Society in the Gaza Strip was bombed, but no one was hurt.
A group calling itself the Huda (Guidance) Army Organization threatened to target all Christians living in the Gaza Strip following remarks against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad that were made last year by Pope Benedict XVI.
"We will target all Crusaders in the Gaza Strip," the group said in a leaflet, "until the pope issues an official apology."
The group also threatened to attack churches and Christian-owned institutions and homes.
"All centers belonging to Crusaders, including churches and institutions, will from now on be targeted," it said. "We will even attack the Crusaders as they sit intoxicated in their homes."
The Huda Army Organization said preparations had been completed "to strike at every Crusader and infidel on the purified land of Palestine.
Abbas said the top priority of Fayad's cabinet would be to boost the economy by persuading the international community to resume financial aid to the PA.
"A group of people wants to destroy our people," he said, referring to Hamas. "They have attacked innocent civilians and looted homes and institutions. But this will not last for long because God will not support the oppressors."
Fayad said his cabinet would focus on restoring law and order and on reuniting the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
"My cabinet will work toward providing the basic needs of our people in the Gaza Strip," he said. "Let's all start working together for the sake of Palestine."
Ahmed Abdel Rahman, a top Fatah official, said the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip should worry the entire Arab world.
"The bloody coup that Hamas staged in the Gaza Strip should be seen as a message of warning to all the Arab regimes," he said. "They must not allow the radicals to operate in their countries."
Abdel Rahman said there was no longer any room for Hamas on the Palestinian political scene. "Unless Hamas accepts democracy and pluralism, they will stay out of the picture," he said. "The leaders of the Hamas coup must be brought to trial."
He also dismissed Hamas's argument that the new cabinet was illegal because it had not won the approval of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
"What did the parliament do to stop the bloodshed?" he asked. "Those who conspired against the Palestinian Authority have no place amongst us."
Ahmed Bahr, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, condemned the formation of the new cabinet as a "dangerous precedent" and accused Abbas of staging a coup against the elected government and parliament.
"Abbas's measures will lead to the total collapse of the Palestinian constitution," he said. "Today, he has staged a constitutional coup."
He appealed to the international community to refrain from dealing with Fayad's government. "Dealing with this cabinet will deepen the divisions among the Palestinians and will be regarded as a flagrant intervention in the internal affairs of the Palestinians," he said.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Abbas of working on instructions from Israel and the US to remove Hamas from power.
"There's no such thing as an emergency cabinet in the Palestinian Basic Law," he said. "This is an illegitimate government."
Also Sunday, the Tunisian delegation based in Gaza City left for consultations with its country's leadership on whether to support the Gaza-based Hamas government, or the West Bank-based Fatah government, an official said.
The delegation left the Gaza Strip through the Erez Crossing to Israel, said the official. Members are scheduled to meet with Abbas in Ramallah before leaving for Tunis, the official said.
Last week, the Egyptian security delegation also left the Gaza Strip.
AP contributed to this report.
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