Palestinian unity may be delayed

Updated: 2006-11-18 08:49

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Palestinian negotiators said Friday a hoped-for deal this week on a unity government could be delayed by difficulties in working out a parallel prisoner swap with Israel.

The Palestinian president and premier, heading the rival Fatah and Hamas factions, have been trying to wrap up the deal in an effort to end the economic sanctions and pave the way for a resumption of long-frozen talks with Israel. The negotiations have been dragging on for months.

Israel and Western donor nations imposed the sanctions on the Palestinian government after Hamas won legislative elections earlier this year. Despite widespread hardship caused by the sanctions, Hamas has rejected international calls to renounce violence, recognize Israel or accept past peace agreements.

President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, a moderate, has been pushing Hamas to enter a coalition with Fatah in hopes of ending the sanctions. He hopes the government to endorse a softer position to Israel that will enable him to resume peace talks.

The concept is to replace the Cabinet of Hamas ministers with independent experts linked to, but not members of, the two movements. Abbas and his Palestine Liberation Organization would be charged with handling peace negotiations, while the Cabinet would deal with the daily affairs of the Palestinian areas.

A senior Palestinian negotiator said the current Hamas-led Cabinet would resign within three days to make way for a new unity government.

The negotiator, who took part in Thursday's meeting with Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was not public. The two met again Friday.

"They talked about all issues on the table," said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Abbas. He did not elaborate.

Ghazi Hamad, spokesman for the current Hamas-led government, said a deal might take a bit longer to reach, but expressed optimism the sides would resolve their differences. A key sticking point is which party will appoint the interior minister, who oversees powerful security forces.

"I hope in a week we will have the formation of the government," Hamad said.

Palestinian officials say the U.S., which has led international opposition to Hamas, and the European Union are ready to accept the united government. But in Washington, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said it was too early to say.

"We haven't seen the proposal. It hasn't been presented to us," he said.

Despite the reported progress, Abbas has said he hopes to tie unity efforts to a broader deal that would see Israel release Palestinian prisoners, including several jailed Hamas Cabinet ministers and lawmakers, in return for the release of a captured Israeli soldier. Slow progress on such a deal could delay the creation of the new government.

"How can we go to parliament to vote on a new government while the parliamentarians are still in jail," said Mustafa Barghouti, a lawmaker, who is acting as a go-between in unity government formation.

Israeli officials say there will be no prisoner release until the soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, comes home.

Israel has been conducting an offensive in the Gaza Strip since Shalit was kidnapped in a cross-border raid June 25.

Late Friday, Israeli aircraft attacked three targets in Gaza, destroying the home of a Hamas militant and an Islamic charity affiliated with Hamas. There were no reports of casualties but there was heavy damage to the charity building, which housed a mosque, library and health clinic. The army said it had targeted Hamas offices and meeting places.

Israeli troops clashed Friday with a group of 200 rioters in the West Bank, killing three people and wounding more than 30 others, two critically, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials. The violence erupted after Israeli troops entered the town of Qalqilya to arrest a wanted militant.

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