Hamas ministers may step down to secure power deal

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The Independent Online

A new Palestinian cabinet of "technocrats" could ease the crippling Israeli and international blockade of the existing Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, a senior minister has suggested.

Sameer Abu-Eisheh, the Panning Minister and acting Finance Minister in Ismail Haniyeh's increasingly beleaguered administration, said that one option was for Mr Haniyeh and his cabinet to step down in favour of a non-aligned ministerial team of independent experts.

The cabinet was ready to form a "national unity" government under Mr Haniyeh if it could be agreed, he said, and added: "There are alternatives. The technocrat government, for example, is an option. Nobody ruled it out."

Dr Abu-Eisheh who, though sympathetic to Hamas, is not a member and said he was not speaking for the faction, said such a government would "make it easier" for the international community to start lifting the blockade.

Fatah and Hamas remain in deadlock over talks designed to bring in the " national unity" government as a means of easing a blockade which has left Palestinian Authority employees without salaries for six months. In Gaza, hundreds of Palestinian police and security officers, some firing rifles into the air, upturned rubbish bins, burnt tyres and broke up concrete slabs to block Gaza City's main roads in protest at the delays in salary payments.

The office of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that it would be paying lump sums of £186 over the next week to the PA's 155,000 employees as a down-payment on unpaid salaries. The payments have been funded by donations of $50m from Qatar and $15m from Saudi Arabia.

But the payments are unlikely to be enough to avert a mounting crisis for which Hamas blames the international community but which Fatah, its main political opponent, increasingly blames Hamas for its refusal to endorse a programme which Mr Abbas can say recognises Israel. Some senior officials in Fatah, which is playing a leading role in public servants' strikes in protest at salary non-payment, say Mr Abbas cannot dissolve the Hamas-led government without risking a civil war.

Instead, they are talking openly about a "popular revolt" which will force it to make further concessions, or stand down. Referring to the strikers, including teachers, Ahmad Abdul Rahman, a senior Fatah member of the PLO executive, said: "I think civil society will be better than the political groups in teaching Hamas the lessons it needs to learn." He said Hamas had a "month, not more, to come to [Mr Abbas] to give him the concessions necessary to form a coalition government if they want to keep in power."

Dr Abu-Eisheh, standing in for one of four Hamas ministers in jail, said the new cabinet had already exceeded international expectations that it would last "two days" or a "few weeks" or "three months". But he added: "We all know we have to come to a difficult point and that there should be an end to the present economic and political situation."

Of the deadlock between Fatah and Hamas he said: "There are two poles here: Fatah and Hamas and nobody will submit to the other. Coming to a round table and putting the difference to one side is the one solution; to come to an agreed agenda in which everyone feels they are not losing."

But the idea of a "technocratic" cabinet remains fraught with problems. A senior Fatah former minister told a private meeting of Palestinian politicians and diplomats this week that he believed neither Hamas nor Fatah had an interest in the idea.

Dr Abu-Eisheh, a mild-mannered university professor, reeled off achievements in his ministry. He said it had cut by 40 per cent the previous administration's expenditure on petrol, phone use and hospitality; restored scholarships for bright university students; introduced a taxation system no longer dependent on Israel and sliced 10 per cent off $600m of debt.