June 16, 2007 in Nation/World

Palestinian government divided

Rushdi Abu Alouf and Ken Ellingwood Los Angeles Times
 
Associated Press photo

A Fatah militant sets the offices of a Hamas-affiliated charity on fire in the West Bank city of Nablus on Friday. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – After four days of brutal street battles, Palestinians on Friday found themselves facing the prospect of two competing governments. President Mahmoud Abbas named a political independent respected by the United States and Israel as prime minister, but the victorious Hamas movement refused to step aside.

Leaders of the Islamic movement, now with exclusive dominion over Gaza after defeating Abbas’ security forces, sent conciliatory signals. Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader whom the president fired as prime minister a night earlier, appealed for calm even as he refused to give up his post.

There was scattered violence in Gaza and the West Bank, where Abbas’ Fatah movement remained in control. Looters in Gaza ransacked Abbas’ presidential headquarters and several battle-scarred compounds once controlled by security forces led by his Fatah party. A shooting during a Hamas rally in the coastal strip killed one of the Islamist movement’s supporters.

But days of combat that left more than 90 people dead was largely replaced by a quiet dread among Gaza’s 1.4 million residents that their impoverished enclave would end up more isolated by the world as a result of Hamas’ military victory. Hamas officials released 10 senior Fatah leaders and announced a prisoner amnesty to quell worries of retributive violence against its political rivals.

Hamas and Fatah forces had been clashing for weeks, despite a unity government put in place in February that included politicians from both movements. This week, Hamas fighters launched a full-scale offensive that overwhelmed security forces loyal to Fatah.

In the wake of the violence, Abbas named Salam Fayyad, a U.S.-educated economist who twice served as finance minister, to head an interim government that under Palestinian law can serve for 30 days without approval of the Hamas-led parliament.

Fayyad, a political moderate who favors negotiations with Israel, was credited during the reign of the late Yasser Arafat with spearheading reforms to make Palestinian financial transactions more transparent.

He quit the finance post to run for Palestinian parliament in 2006, but returned when Hamas and Fatah agreed to share power under Haniyeh. That union failed to persuade Western nations to drop their aid boycott against the Hamas-led government. But the embargo may be lifted for the West Bank once the emergency government is in place since it will not include the Islamist movement.

Hamas officials in Gaza said Friday they would refuse to deal with the emergency government, and Haniyeh declared that he remained in charge.

Officials from the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union, which collectively have pursued peace talks as the Quartet, consulted by telephone Friday and later joined the Bush administration in backing Abbas.

Hamas has made it clear it intends to focus on restoring order following months of lawlessness in Gaza. Soon after Hamas completed its takeover, Haniyeh urged captors to release BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, who was abducted in March by gunmen believed to belong to a clan with a history of criminal activities.

In the West Bank, masked members of the Fatah-led security forces gathered in large numbers in downtown Ramallah, one of several displays of strength by official forces and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militia linked to Fatah.

Hamas reported attacks on a cleric and school principal in the Ramallah area and said several of its offices elsewhere in the West Bank were ransacked, fired upon or set ablaze.

As the standoff continued, Israel signaled it was willing to make conciliatory moves in the West Bank to help Abbas and other relatively moderate Palestinians.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to discuss possible moves when he meets with President Bush in Washington next week.

The United States and European Union classify Hamas as a terrorist group. They cut off direct aid to the Palestinian Authority when the Hamas-led government would not recognize Israel, renounce violence and agree to abide by past Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

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