US lifts Palestinian embargo

RAMALLAH (Reuters) — Western powers bolstered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ emergency government on Monday, vowing to end a 15-month-old embargo after he sacked ruling Hamas Islamists who seized the Gaza Strip.Abbas sought to exert authority over the Hamas-controlled territory and stripped the group of its representation on the national security council.

Abbas told US President George W. Bush by phone that the time had arrived to resume serious peace talks.

“The government will pursue its jurisdiction over all parts of the homeland, regardless of what happened in Gaza,” Information Minister Riyad Malki told reporters after the new government met in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Abbas formed the new Cabinet last week in the West Bank after the Hamas Islamist group routed security forces dominated by his Fateh movement in Gaza.

It is unclear how much influence Abbas’ government can have in Gaza, now a Hamas fiefdom. Gaza and the West Bank are separated by 45km of Israeli territory.

Abbas’ forces want to prevent any spillover of the fighting from Gaza to the West Bank, where Fateh holds sway under Israeli occupation and where Hamas has threatened reprisals.

Hospital staff said a senior operative of Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, an offshoot of Abbas’ Fateh faction, was killed and another man was critically wounded in a gunbattle near a main border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Hamas fighters said they fired at the Israeli army and that the man was killed by Israeli gun fire. An Israeli army spokesman denied that shots fired from an Israeli lookout, which had also come under attack, caused the death.

He said a gunman from Gaza sprayed bullets and threw grenades at Palestinians waiting at the crossing.

Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas has said he still considers a three-month-old unity coalition in which he is prime minister as the legitimate Palestinian government and accuses Abbas of participating in a US-led plot to overthrow him.

Speaking at a news conference in Washington, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States would “resume full assistance to the Palestinian government and normal government to government contacts.” Washington imposed a financial embargo on the Palestinian government when Hamas rose to power in early 2006 and refused to recognise Israel.

The European Union said it wanted to resume direct aid to the Palestinians, but did not say when it would begin to do so.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in New York that Israel would release frozen tax revenues to Abbas and “take perhaps more risks” in cooperating with Abbas’ government.

Isolating Hamas

Washington wants to accelerate talks between Olmert and Abbas on Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, while isolating Hamas economically, diplomatically and militarily in Gaza.

The Jewish state renewed full fuel supplies to Gaza after halting them a day earlier, but issued orders to block cargo shipments to the strip.

An Israeli defence official, Shlomo Dror, said Israel may airlift food if necessary to avert a humanitarian crisis for 1.5 million Palestinians living there. Key crossings between Israel and Gaza have remained largely shut for days.

Palestinians in Gaza responded to the threatened blockade by stocking up on extra food at the local grocer.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who met European foreign ministers in Luxembourg, said Israel should seize an opportunity offered by the political divisions between the West Bank and Gaza.

“We should take advantage of this split,” Livni said.

Some European diplomats have expressed misgivings about the US-Israeli strategy and whether it can deliver a lasting solution. Others point to questions over the legal underpinnings of the Cabinet Abbas set up by decree over Hamas’ objections.

Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip said they were pressing kidnappers of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston to free him by the end of Monday.

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