Israel warned the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, on Friday that he would be held responsible for any violence by Hamas once the new national unity government, formed with the backing of the militant Islamic group, was finalised, as is expected in the coming days.
“It is a very negative move and a great leap backward,” said a senior Israeli official. He added that once the government was formed, and if rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza were launched into Israel, “Abbas will not be able to say any more that he is not responsible. Israel will have every right to hold him responsible”. The official stressed that even though the new government will be comprised of technocrats, with no Hamas members, Israel will not deal with it because it was formed with the backing of Hamas – which advocates the destruction of the Israeli state.
Israeli soldiers apprehended a man wearing a suicide bomb vest at a checkpoint in Nablus on Friday, but there was no suggestion that he was connected to Hamas.
In spite of Israel’s warning, Mr Abbas’s chosen course now seems irreversible: to end the seven-year split in Palestinian politics in a fashion that gives him a historic achievement. And Hamas, out of weakness, seems willing for the government to be mostly on Mr Abbas’s terms for now. It has lost Egypt as its main ally, faces Egyptian blockage of smuggling tunnels, and does not even have the money to pay its government employees.
Mr Abbas has asked Rami Hamdallah, a member of his Fatah faction, to lead the unity government. It also includes other holdover ministers, giving it a continuity designed to please the Western donors upon which the Palestinian Authority (PA) depends.
Mr Hamdallah said on Wednesday that the new government would uphold the policies of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, such as existing peace agreements. Whether the cabinet will issue a more explicit affirmation of this and the shunning of violence was unclear yesterday. Palestinian analysts predicted it would do this to please the international community, while Abdullah Abdullah, the deputy commissioner on foreign relations for Fatah, said there was no need for an explicit declaration.
While the EU is set to continue funding the new government, the American position is uncertain because US law prohibits giving aid to a government influenced by a terrorist organisation and Hamas was involved in choosing the cabinet ministers. The Obama administration may want to continue support, with officials talking about a “wait and see approach”, but it will have to gain congressional backing.
Crucial questions remain. Hamas and the PA will maintain separate security forces, and Hamas’s Izzedin al-Qassam militia in Gaza will be left intact. And the two are still far apart on how to deal with Israel. While Mr Abbas called this week for renewed talks with Israel on condition that it releases prisoners and freezes settlement building, the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said unity would strengthen the Palestinians in mounting resistance against Israel.
For Mr Abbas, who was elected eight years ago, the unity government will give him renewed legitimacy. “He can say I united the Palestinians, a historic achievement,” said Hani Masri, of the Masarat think tank in Ramallah. “It’s not exactly accurate, since the separation remains even after the government is formed. Still, this has a greater chance in lasting longer than previous unity efforts.”