Hamas plans independent economy

A-Zahar: Separate from Israel in agriculture, industry, health issues.

zahar rally 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
zahar rally 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Displaying the first clear signs of leadership over the Palestinian Authority, Hamas leaders said Wednesday they plan to make the Palestinian economy independent of Israel's and warned PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas not to take independent political decisions. "Gradually, we want to separate our economy from the Israeli economy in agriculture, industry, health, and environmental issues," said Mahmoud a-Zahar, a Hamas leader from Gaza, speaking at a press conference in Cairo Wednesday. The Palestinian economy is closely linked to and very dependent on Israel's economy, and separating the two would be very difficult for the Palestinians. The currency Palestinians use is Israeli and much of the agricultural produce and manufactured goods made in the Palestinian Territories are sold to Israel. Exports to other countries is limited. Industry is limited, which is why many Palestinians once worked as laborers in Israel. Since the intifada broke out in 2000, Israel limited the number of these laborers greatly for security reasons, causing Palestinian unemployment to skyrocket. Israel said last year it wanted to stop all Palestinian workers from entering Israel by the year 2008. At the press conference, Khaled Mashaal, the exiled Hamas political chief, warned Abbas not to make changes in the PA government. "This is a message to Abu Mazen [Abbas] and other brothers in the authority to stop issuing decrees and decisions [before consulting with us]... as if to throw them in our face," Mashaal told journalists in Cairo. "This is a transition period, so any such decisions will not be acceptable." The warning was a reaction to media reports that Abbas would try to wrest control of security forces from a Hamas-led government. Palestinian papers reported Abbas planned to appoint his current Interior Minister Nasser Youssef as deputy commander of the Palestinian security forces. Abbas's office denied the reports. Under Palestinian law, Abbas, as PA chairman, is responsible for foreign intelligence and national defense, while the yet-to-be-named prime minister is responsible for the police, civil defense and the powerful preventive security forces. Mashaal also again declared that Hamas would not bow to Arab and international pressure to recognize Israel and that the group - once in power - would not act to prevent terrorist attacks on the Jewish state. The tough stance came after a three-day visit by Hamas's leadership for talks with Egyptian officials, the movement's first diplomatic foray seeking Arab support since its victory in elections last month. Ahead of the talks, Egyptian officials had said they would urge Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence in a bid to avert a collapse of the peace process and build a coalition government with Abbas's Fatah party. But Mashaal, who is based in Damascus, and other Hamas leaders appeared confident in their strength, offering at most a continuation of the cease-fire they called a year ago. Mashaal asked the West not to punish the Palestinians by stopping aid. He admitted that "mistakes" were made, but they would be corrected. "We are in front of a new era now and we will reform our Palestinian nation," said Mashaal. "Of course there were some mistakes but we'll correct all of that. We are going to show a new and good image... fighting the corruption, enhancing the national unity, and establishing a new political regime that depends on respecting the others and all our Islamic rules." Zahar concentrated on improving the hospitals. "Right now we spend around $100 million annually on health care. We'll use some for training Palestinian doctors and developing our hospitals." Many Palestinian patients are treated in Israeli hospitals because Palestinian hospitals lack basic equipment and advanced technology. Meanwhile, Islamic Jihad declared it would forge ahead with attacks against Israel, signaling that even if Hamas eventually bowed to pressure, other Palestinian radicals would not. The group has been responsible for all six suicide bombings since factions agreed to a cease-fire a year ago. The Hamas leaders are traveling next to the Gulf nation of Qatar and will make stops in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Mashaal said Hamas would not renounce violence or act to stop attacks because it was obliged to resist what it regards as Israel's occupation of Palestinian land. Hamas had the ability to lead the Palestinians in a long struggle that they would be better able to bear than Israel, he said. "We will not stand against the resistance, we will not condemn any operation and will never arrest any mujahed [holy warrior]," he said. The Hamas political boss told the British Broadcasting Corp. earlier Wednesday that a long-term cease-fire with Israel was possible if the Jewish state withdrew to its 1967 borders. Another top Hamas leader told the Associated Press on Wednesday that Jamal al-Khudairi, an independent legislator and businessman backed by Hamas, would be named Palestinian prime minister. Mashaal claimed Hamas had not decided. "Khudairi is a respected Palestinian personality," was all Mashaal said when asked about the report. Khudairi was unanimously picked for the post in a Cairo meeting of Hamas leaders from Syria and from Gaza, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the group has not yet put the proposal to Abbas. Khudairi, about 50 years old, is board chairman of Gaza's Islamic University and owns the biggest mattress factory in the West Bank and Gaza. In his campaign speeches, he did not address violence or the recognition of Israel, but stuck to issues like education and job training. He has, however, talked of the need for internal Palestinian reform. If Khudairi was not accepted in negotiations with Abbas or turned down the nomination, the group would nominate Palestinian Trade and Economics Minister Mazen Sonnoqrot, another independent with Hamas sympathies, the Hamas official said. Abbas has said that he will ask Hamas to form the new government, with the newly elected parliament convening February 18. During their Cairo meeting, the Hamas leaders also decided that if all efforts to name a cabinet with a non-Hamas prime minister failed, they would name one of their own leaders - Ismail Haniyeh - as the new prime minister, the official said. One senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said the name of the Hamas candidate for prime minister was irrelevant, and that what mattered was whether the organization fulfilled Israel's three conditions: disavow terrorism and disarm, recognize Israel's right to exist and accept all previous agreements with Israel. "Who they choose is an internal Palestinian matter," the official said. "What matters is if Hamas meets the conditions. If they do, we will deal with them; if not, we won't." The official noted that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Wednesday in Washington with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and reiterated the US backing for these conditions. Herb Keinon contributed to this report.