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Palestinian factions vie for spoils

President Abbas and Hamas are expected to jostle over who controls key government posts.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 16, 2006


When the new Palestinian legislature is sworn in Saturday, Hamas's installation as the new majority will be hailed as an electoral milestone for the fledgling Palestinian democracy.

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But a brewing dispute between the Islamic militants and the deposed Fatah Party is already calling into question the stability of a new government: How will authority be divvied up between the Hamas prime minister's cabinet and the higher-ranking post held by President Mahmoud Abbas?

"Palestinian legislation is slippery and elastic. There's unclear constitutional lines," says Bassem Ezbidi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. "We will have a power struggle from now on from these two heads of government. And that will impact everything: the mandate, the authority, the politics that will emerge."

Setting the stage for the standoff will be a speech expected by Mr. Abbas to lawmakers Saturday in which he'll ask Hamas, which calls for destruction of the Jewish state, to embrace his vision for peace with Israel.

Hamas is expected to remain steadfast in its opposition to Abbas's approach, deepening the divide between Fatah and Hamas lawmakers as negotiations begin to form the new government.

One of the most sensitive points of tension between the two parties is who will control the 60,000-strong Palestinian paramilitary police.

At stake is whether the policemen will reinforce Abbas's preference of extending a year-long calm in violence with Israel, or possibly collude with militants to launch new attacks.

Palestinian basic laws designate the president as a commander in chief. The prime minister is responsible for the national security council and appointing an interior minister - powers stripped away from the president three years ago to weaken the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

In its last session on Monday, the outgoing Fatah Parliament passed a law setting up a special court to resolve disputes between the prime minister and the president - a move condemned by Hamas.

But underlying the legal confusion are years of bad blood between the Islamic militant underground and the guerrilla leaders who Mr. Arafat installed as the security chiefs of the self-rule government when it was set up a decade ago.

Two weeks ago, a predawn blast on Suleiman Abu Mutleq's front stoop ripped a hole in his iron doorway and shattered the windows of his villa. The Khan Younis preventative security chief has yet to make an arrest, but has been quick to accuse.

"It's clear from the information we have that Hamas is responsible," says Mr. Abu Mutleq, who heads a force charged with pursuing militants who launch attacks on Israel. "They are acting blindly because they won. I don't understand how they can act like an opposition and form a government. It's unacceptable."

Although Hamas has denied involvement, Abu Mutleq's allegation reflects the mutual resentment between Fatah loyalists, who have dominated the Palestinian police, and newly elected Islamic militants who will now oversee security personnel who were once their jailers.