Abbas, Hamas set to resume unity government talks

RAMALLAH — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh are set to resume negotiations over forming a unity government this week, as Hamas signalled that a deal could be struck.

Tensions have been high between the two main Palestinian factions in recent weeks, and a general strike of Palestinian Authority employees, unpaid for months, have left schools closed and health facilities working on an emergency-only basis.

Hopes were raised last week that the formation of a unity government could ease international sanctions against the PA, in place since Hamas formed a government in February, and allow international aid to once again flow.

But in New York last week for a session of the UN General Assembly and talks with US President George W. Bush, Abbas was left in little doubt that a unity government alone would not be enough to appease the international community.

Abbas tried to assure Washington that any unity government would recognise Israel, a key demand of the members of the Quartet —  the US, the EU, Russia and the UN. But he was rebuffed Saturday by Haniyeh who said Hamas had no such intention. Abbas, upon his return to the region, declared that negotiations to form a unity government had returned to “zero.” 

Yesterday, the Palestinian PM struck a more upbeat note on hopes for a unity government.

“We are going to resume talks on the formation of a national coalition government,” he said in a statement. “We have serious intentions to make it succeed, and we hope that the talks will resume soon.”

Haniyeh and Abbas are scheduled to meet in Gaza on Monday or Tuesday.

In Gaza City, in a sign of the complexities emanating not just from inside the two main factions, some two dozen gunmen not affiliated to either Hamas or Fateh threatened violence if the two sides agree to a coalition they view as too moderate.

“We consider any government that recognises Israel as a legitimate target,” said one of the gunmen, who would only identify himself as Abu Abir. “We will fight against it by all means, and we will deal with it as an entity linked to the occupation.”

Haniyeh, meanwhile, who had promised PA employees a month’s salary for Ramadan that the government has so far failed to deliver, could only offer resilience in a televised Ramadan speech Saturday.

“It is true that our conditions are tough and bitter,” he said. “But we affirm that we are a strong-willed people, obstinate in the face of attempts to mould us or bring us to our knees.”

Haniyeh’s government is under intense pressure from PA employee unions, many of them linked to Fateh, over the lack of salaries. A general strike yesterday entered its third week, and strikers remain unrepentant.

“The government continues ignoring the entire Palestinian people,” Ahmad Assaf, one of the strike coordinators for the PA Employees Federation, said in an interview with Voice of Palestine Radio yesterday. “The premier promised to pay a month’s salary before the start of Ramadan. We remind him that today is the second day of Ramadan. Consequently, we are moving towards escalating our protest activities.”

But the government has refused to shoulder the blame for the non-payment of the promised salaries, and yesterday Minister of State on Refugees Affairs Atef Odwan pushed the buck back to President Abbas’ office.

Odwan accused Abbas of retreating from a promise to pay the one-month salaries once negotiations over a unity government had reached a dead-end.

“There are large sums of money in the presidency’s account… and we know that there are other funds in the Palestinian National Fund,” Odwan said in another radio interview. “These funds are the contributions of the Palestinian people so these funds must be spent on the Palestinian people; the fund doesn’t belong to Fateh or the PA.”

With poverty rapidly increasing and no sign of any softening in the stance of the international community, negotiations over a unity government will be crucial to avoid what many are warning could turn into a full-scale civil war, especially in Gaza where weapons are available in greater numbers.

“We have not yet reached the point of no return but if things are left as they are we will get there sooner rather than later,” former PA minister Ghassan Khatib told The Jordan Times yesterday.

“The leaders of both Fateh and Hamas have to come to the conclusion that, on the one hand none of them will be able to govern successfully alone, and on the other, the government, which needs to be composed of both factions, must have politics compatible with international legality.”

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