Gaza striking workers mob Palestinian prime minister

RAMALLAH — Shots were fired in Gaza yesterday when bodyguards around Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh tried to disperse protesters that had gathered in front of the parliament building in Gaza City.

The angry protesters tried to block Haniyeh’s car as he was on his way to give a speech to parliamentarians. Demonstrators were protesting the government’s failure to solve an economic crisis that has severely deepened since the international boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian government took effect in March.

More than 160,000 Palestinian Authority employees have as a result seen almost none of their salaries since, and international agencies have warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, also suffering from an Israeli blockade that has stopped all but emergency supplies into Gaza.

Last week, the UN’s economic development agency said the Palestinian economy had shrunk to levels not seen for over 20 years.

One woman was reportedly wounded in the scuffle outside the parliament, when, according to eyewitnesses, members of Haniyeh’s Executive Force hit her on the back with a rifle.

The planned meeting of parliamentarians was then cancelled after Fateh legislators walked out in protest.

Hamas and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh movement had been in talks over the formation of a unity government in an attempt to ease the international sanctions.

But Hamas’ refusal to bow to international demands that it recognise Israel, renounce the armed resistance and honour previously signed agreements between the PA and Israel has led to their postponement.

A copy of the proposed platform for the unity government was released Monday. Among its key points are calling for a Palestinian state in areas captured by Israel in 1967. That stance implies recognition of Israel.

It also calls for acceptance of past agreements between the PLO and Israel that “protect the higher interests of our people.” The vague language appears to fall short of international demands.

On Saturday, US consul-general to the PA, Jacob Walles, told Abbas the new government would be unacceptable unless the international conditions were met, officials said.

“We expect any government to accept the Quartet principles,” said Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, a spokeswoman at the consulate in Jerusalem.

Haniyeh said Sunday that the group would not recognise past peace deals despite the international pressure.

“If we were to always bend to the will of America, we would absolutely never have a state, an existence or honour,” he told reporters, adding that talks with Abbas would resume when the president returned from New York.

Abbas is in New York for a UN General Assembly session, and will use a meeting this week with President George W. Bush on the sidelines of the session to try to win US support for a coalition that does not fully meet international demands for a changed stance on Israel, Palestinian officials said.

They said he would warn that failure to work out a unity government could lead to a Palestinian civil war.

Still, officials close to Abbas wondered if the talks would be meaningless.

“What’s the point of forming a government if this government is saying that it won’t recognise agreements signed with Israel?” lawmaker Saeb Erekat, an Abbas confidant, told AP. “The whole point is to break the deadlock in the peace process and bring an end to the siege.”

Israel threw its own carrot into the mix yesterday, saying it would consider releasing millions of dollars it owes the PA and free Palestinian prisoners if the Palestinian government falls into line with international consensus and also frees an Israeli soldier captured in June.

“If they do that, then the Israeli commitment is to immediately follow through with substantial confidence-building measures that would reinforce a positive momentum,” an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman said ahead of a meeting in New York between Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Abbas.

But a poll released yesterday by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research finds that while a majority of Palestinians are dissatisfied with the Hamas-led government’s performance to date, 66 per cent of respondents said they didn’t want Hamas to bow to the international demands.

Hamas and Fateh are running neck-and-neck at 38 and 39 per cent respectively in terms of popularity.

Separately Monday, an Israeli military court held off on deciding whether 18 Hamas lawmakers should be released from prison. The court, which ordered the lawmakers freed last week, made no decision on the army prosecutor’s appeal and did not say when a ruling would be made.

Israel arrested the lawmakers after an Israeli soldier was captured in Gaza in June by three Palestinian groups, including Hamas’ armed wing. In recent days, officials have reported progress in Egyptian-mediated negotiations to arrange a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas.

Israel’s Maariv newspaper on Monday published extracts of a letter, as reported by an Arab source serving as a mediator in the affair, written by the captured soldier Gilad Shalit to his family, assuring them that he is in good health.

Yesterday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was quoted as saying he was confident that Israel was prepared to release more Palestinian prisoners than expected as part of a possible deal covering the release of an Israeli soldier held by Palestinians.

“The outlines of the agreement, which is not yet complete, affirm the release of the Israeli prisoner in exchange for an initial large batch of women and children and then the release of Palestinian prisoners in three batches,” the state news agency MENA said, quoting Mubarak speaking on Sunday night.

No number was specified by the Egyptian president. Israeli media reports have estimated the number of Palestinians who could be released as part of a swap at between 600 and 800.

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