Israel mulls sanctions as Hamas takes control

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The Independent Online

The acting Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, put off until then a decision on a series of options put to him yesterday by officials and ministers for what could amount to a virtual diplomatic and economic blockade of a Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA).

The measures are designed to increase the difficulties faced by an incoming Hamas administration unless the faction reverses its previous stances by recognising Israel, renouncing violence and agreeing to honour previous agreements between the old PA and Israel.

Dov Wesiglass, a senior Prime Ministerial adviser, has already been quoted in Israeli media as saying the government intends "to put the Palestinians on a diet but not to starve them".

But amid some European and American pressure not to inflict fresh and premature hardship on the Palestinian public itself, yesterday's meeting agreed to delay a decision until at least after today's meeting of the new Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). The new PLC members will be sworn in and addressed by the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas.

The only firm decision taken at yesterday's meeting was to continue the bar on newly elected Hamas parliamentarians based in Gaza -- who include the likely new Prime Minister, Ismael Haniyeh -- from travelling to Ramallah for today's meeting. The proceedings in both centres will therefore be linked by video conferencing facilities.

Israel has already indicated that it is not intending to remit to the PA the next $50m monthly tranche of duties it collects on the authority's behalf, although officials said that a final decision on this may not be taken until the end of the month.

The most draconian proposals are being canvassed by the Defence Ministry and include measures to isolate Gaza further by halting the modest flow of workers allowed to enter Israel and halt the passage of all but vital supplies through the main Karni cargo crossing.

Mark Regev, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Israel was now in "watch and wait mode" to see what positions Hamas would take today after the swearing-in. "We're waiting to see what happens tomorrow in Ramallah," he said.

It was not fully clear yesterday how far Mr Abbas will go today towards insisting that Hamas abide by the conditions laid down by Israel and the international community for contacts and funding for the PA.

In a reference to the outgoing administration's pursuit of a two-state solution, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a senior presidential aide, declared: "Any new government should be a continuation of the previous government. They have to say this publicly and in writing." Mr Rdeneh said it was too early to say what action Mr Abbas would take if Hamas refused to adopt his programme.

Israeli officials said Mr Olmert, leader of the new Kadima party, would ponder over the weekend what sanctions to recommend to his Cabinet. The debate within Israel on the issue has been sharpened by the first sparring in the campaign running up to elections on March 28. The right-wing Likud party, under Benjamin Netanyahu, is agitating for the toughest possible stance against Hamas.

Mr Haniyeh said the group's supporters would weather what he called Israel's "policies of oppression and collective punishment". Mushir al-Masri, an incoming Hamas legislator, said he expected a compromise between the faction and Mr Abbas which would lead to the formation of a Palestinian Cabinet.