Hamas takes over, pledges 'battle'

Mashaal vows to continue fight against "Zionist occupation".

On the day the Hamas cabinet took office, Khaled Mashaal, the Damascus-based Hamas leader, promised the Palestinians "a dignified and proud life behind the resistance in defense of their honor, their land and their pride." He told Al-Jazeera: "Our battle is only against the Zionist occupation." Hamas ministers entered office after ceremonies at which the outgoing ministers wished them success and promised to help them carry out their duties. "Today Hamas took control of all the ministries," said Minister of State Atef Udwan. "The new ministers will start implementing their policies immediately." Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar chose to begin his new career by launching a scathing attack on the US. "The US is biased toward Israel, guilty of crimes against the Muslim and Arab world and is widening the rift between the American people and those of the Middle East," he said. Zahar, who replaced Nasser al-Kidwa, a nephew of former PA chairman Yasser Arafat, said Hamas would not cave in to international pressure to change its ways and that it had no plans to negotiate with Israel. Referring to a statement by US President George W. Bush that Washington would provide no aid to a PA government headed by Hamas unless it changes its extremist policies, Zahar said the comments were in line with American support for Israel in the UN and its massive aid to Israel. "America is committing big crimes against the Arab and Islamic countries," he told The Associated Press. "This new decision will intensify the gap between the American people, American interests and the Middle East in general. America is giving $3 billion annually to expand settlements and to confiscate our rights and our land." He also condemned as "immoral" Canada's decision to cut off aid to the new Hamas government. "Is the Canadian state willing to starve the Palestinian people while the Israelis are committing major crimes against Palestinian industry, Palestinian society, the Palestinian economy, occupying their land," he asked. "Is this is a moral principle according to which Israel should be blessed and supported by the Canadian government and people?" Zahar said Hamas would seek new international alliances beyond its traditional Arab friends. "The new channels will be Africa, Asian countries, including China, and the South American continent, for assistance politically and also financially," he said. Salah Bardawil, spokesman for Hamas in the Palestinian Legislative Council, also attacked the US decision to ban contact with the Hamas cabinet. He said that the US decision would not contribute to stability in the region because it sided with Israel. "This is an unjust decision that would deprive the US of the possibility of acting as a neutral party," he said. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri urged the Canadian government to reconsider its decision, saying all the funds from the international community would be spent for the welfare of the Palestinians. "Despite this decision, Hamas is interested in establishing relations with Canadian officials," he said. "Canada can't ignore the results of the democratic elections." Taysir Umran, a senior Hamas official in Nablus, described the US position on the Hamas cabinet as a "fatal blow to the road map and the Quartet." This position does not serve the cause of stability in the Middle East, he said. Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed fear that the West would boycott the Hamas cabinet in the same way it boycotted Arafat in 2002. "Unfortunately, this would take us back to the period when the US and the EU decided to cut off their ties with Arafat and isolate him," he said, urging the international community to continue financial aid. "What is important is that the donor countries continue their aid to the Palestinian people," he said. Former cabinet minister and Fatah legislator Muhammad Dahlan also condemned the Canadian decision, saying it was "a form of collective punishment against the Palestinians because of their democratic choice." The smooth transition of power was marred by statements made by outgoing interior minister Nasser Youssef, who announced that most of the PA security forces would report to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and not the new interior minister, Said Siam. Youssef's announcement drew sharp criticism from Hamas leaders, who said that Abbas did not have any jurisdiction over the security forces. According to Youssef, the new interior minister would have control only over the Civil Police, the Civil Defense and the Preventive Security Service. The other security forces, such as Force 17, Military Intelligence and General Intelligence, as well as the National Security Forces, would remain under the control of the PA chairman. Siam reiterated that the cabinet would not arrest gunmen or dismantle militias. "We will not put our sons in prison for political membership or resisting occupation, because occupation is the reason for the problem," he told reporters. "At the same time, we will reach an understanding with all strugglers to take into consideration the national interest, on the basis that resistance is a legitimate right." The new cabinet's first challenge will be to pay the salaries of more than 140,000 civil servants. Finance Minister Omar Abdel-Razeq said on Thursday that he saw no problem with March salaries being paid but gave no time frame. His predecessor, Jihad al-Wazir, said employees should be paid by mid-April.