(photo credit: AP)
The new Hamas-Fatah coalition won overwhelming parliament approval Saturday, clearing a final formal hurdle before taking on the challenge of persuading a skeptical world to end a crippling year-long boycott of the Palestinian Authority government.
Later Saturday, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas swore in the new coalition.
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One by one, members of the 25-member Cabinet started stepping forward to take the oath of office. The ceremony was held simultaneously in Gaza City and Ramallah in the West Bank, with a video link, because Israeli travel bans prevented the government ministers from gathering in one place.
After the 83-3 vote was announced, lawmakers jumped up for a standing ovation. In all, parliament has 132 members, but 41 are in Israeli detention.
Presenting the government's program to parliament, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said the coalition wants to set up a Palestinian state in the lands Israel took in the Six Day War. He said the Palestinians affirm the right to resist occupation, but will also seek to expand a truce with Israel.
With its mixed messages, the platform fell short of international conditions for acceptance, including explicit recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence.
Israel reiterated Saturday that it will not deal with the new government, while a senior UN official signaled flexibility. "This is a significant step in the right direction," said the UN's Mideast envoy Alvaro de Soto, who attended the session. "We will be watching with interest to see how this program is implemented."
Parliament met simultaneously in Gaza City and in Ramallah, with a video link. Palestinian lawmakers cannot meet in one place because of Israeli travel bans. A vote was set for late afternoon.
The coalition replaces a government led by Hamas, which carried out dozens of suicide bombings against Israel and swept parliamentary elections last year. Hamas's ascent to power drew down bruising international sanctions meant to pressure it to recognize Israel and accept past peace accords.
The new government "respects" previous international agreements reached by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and calls for peace talks to be conducted by Abbas. Any future deal could be submitted to a national referendum, suggesting that Hamas would not be given veto power.
Haniyeh said the government wants to expand a cease-fire with Israel, yet also "affirms that resistance in all its means, including the popular resistance against occupation" is a Palestinian right. Popular resistance is jargon for demonstrations and other non-violent protests.
In his speech to parliament, Abbas said Saturday that the Palestinian people "reject violence in all its forms" and seek a comprehensive peace "based on negotiations."
Abbas said the Palestinians extend their hand to Israel "to achieve the peace of freedom and equality," and urge it to make a "mutual commitment ... to stop all violence."
The two speeches underscored that even though the ideological gaps between Hamas and Fatah are narrowing, fundamental differences remain.
Later Saturday, Abbas is to swear in the coalition, formed after months of stop-and-go negotiations interrupted by periods of deadly factional fighting that claimed more than 140 lives.
Brushing aside international misgivings about Fatah joining forces with Hamas, Abbas has said it's the only way to avert a civil war in the West Bank and Gaza.
Haniyeh also addressed these misgivings in his speech, acknowledging the new government's path will be a difficult one. "The challenges are many, and so are the difficulties," he said, "All are waiting to see what the national unity government will offer, will it be up to the challenge."
Incoming Finance Minister Salam Fayyad warned that the new government will not be able to function for long unless the international community lifts its boycott and increases assistance. Fayyad said he has no assurances the boycott will be eased, but that he hopes to be able to meet with foreign officials. "We do face a very serious and crippling financial crisis," he said. "Without the help of the international community, it is not going to be possible for us to sustain our operations."