Palestinians look to US-educated professor to bring end to sanctions

US-educated university professor Mohammed Shabir, expected to lead a future Palestinian unity government, is well-respected in Gaza, but his views on Israel are largely unknown. Shabir, 60, has the stature to bridge the differences between the rival Hamas and Fatah parties. However, his opinions about Israel could determine whether he can lead the Palestinians out of their international isolation and end months of economic sanctions against the Hamas government. Shabir holds a doctorate in microbiology from West Virginia University. He is well-known in the Gaza Strip, where he served as president of the Islamic University for 15 years before retiring last year. In the high-profile position, Shabir maintained good relations with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which has strong ties to the university. Many senior Hamas officials worked or taught at the university, including the current prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who served as Shabir's chief of staff. While believed to be sympathetic to Hamas, Shabir is not known to be a member. But Shabir also enjoys a good relationship with the more pragmatic Fatah movement. When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was still alive, Shabir was a frequent visitor. He also speaks often with Arafat's successor, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Officials said Abbas, the leader of Fatah, supports Shabir's candidacy. As head of a new government, Shabir's views on Israel will be closely watched. Israel and the international community have demanded that any Palestinian government renounce violence, recognize Israel's right to exist and accept past peace deals. Hamas, which took office in March, has rejected the conditions, leading to painful economic sanctions against the government. Shabir has never voiced his positions on Israel in public, but he is described by colleagues as pragmatic. Shabir would lead a government of experts - acceptable to the major political parties but independent of them - that Abbas hopes will satisfy the international demands for moderation. The so-called technocrat government would focus on internal Palestinian affairs, while allowing Abbas to pursue peace talks with Israel. Shabir is a devout Muslim with a reputation for modesty. He has turned down past offers to serve as a Cabinet minister and as university president, rejected offers of security guards and chauffeurs. On Monday, as Palestinian leaders were discussing his candidacy, he was seen driving his small car in Gaza City. Shabir, born in the Gaza town of Khan Younis, is married and has six children. His wife is a deputy to the women's affairs minister in the current Hamas-led government.