Last-minute dispute over Palestinian unity Cabinet


RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) - A last-minute dispute erupted on Monday between rival factions Hamas and Fatah over the make-up of their unity government meant to end a crippling seven-year political split among the Palestinians.

It was not clear if the dispute would derail a ceremony planned for later in the day to swear in the new government of technocrats backed by both factions.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said over the weekend he would swear in the new Cabinet on Monday.

Just hours before the planned ceremony, senior Hamas officials said that they oppose the Cabinet lineup in its current form because Abbas has removed the position of minister for prisoner affairs.

Abbas is perceived as having the upper hand in the unity negotiations because the Islamic militant Hamas group has severe money problems and needs the alliance with the Western-backed president.

Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from Abbas in a 2007 takeover, leaving the Palestinian leader with the autonomous areas of the West Bank.

Since then, the rivals have run separate governments.

The formation of a unity government would be the most significant step yet toward ending the political split that has weakened the Palestinian case for a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967.

Over the past seven years, repeated reconciliation attempts have failed, with neither side willing to make significant concessions, even though the split is unpopular among Palestinians.

But both Palestinian factions now have incentives to repair ties.

Hamas is in the midst of a major financial crisis due to a border blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, while Abbas is in need of a political accomplishment following the collapse of peace talks with Israel in late April.

Over the weekend, Abbas announced that he would swear in the new government on Monday and that it would follow his pragmatic policies.

He said the unity government would recognize Israel, renounce violence and adhere to previous agreements - conditions the international community posed in the past for dealing with Hamas.

Hours before the planned ceremony, Hamas said it would not accept a Cabinet without a minister of prisoner affairs.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said his movement has taken a "final decision" not to accept a government without such a minister.

Another Hamas official, Khalil al-Hayeh who has been a negotiator with Fatah, criticized what he said is the "unreasonable timing" of Abbas' decision.

"This does not mean reconciliation has collapsed," al-Hayeh told a solidarity rally with Palestinian prisoners. "We are looking for an exit on this issue and consultations are under way."

The last-minute arguments underscored the frailty of any reconciliation deal.


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