In wake of Hamas victory in Gaza, who governs?

Prime Minister Haniyeh insists the existing government will continue to operate, even as President Abbas announces a dissolution of the Hamas-Fatah coalition.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Hamas flags flapped triumphantly over the Gaza Strip Friday as the Islamic Resistance Movement, once an underground group in the West Bank and Gaza, celebrated after having trounced forces loyal to the more moderate Fatah movement in six days of civil war.

But on its first day of complete control over Gaza, Hamas found itself largely isolated as regional Arab and international supporters of Middle East peace expressed alarm at the violence and scrambled to deal with the complete breakdown of the Palestinian Authority into two entities: an Islamic militant ministate in Gaza and a Fatah-run government clinging to power in the West Bank.

Late Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas put an end to the façade of a functioning Palestinian unity government by announcing the dissolution of the Hamas-Fatah coalition and declaring a state of emergency throughout the Palestinian territories. On Friday, he announced the formation of an emergency interim government and made his internationally respected former finance minister, Salam Fayyad, the new prime minister.

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Mr. Fayyad, a former World Bank official who spent some 20 years in the US and holds a PhD in economics, has maintained good relations with the West and with Israel. Considered a moderate and an independent, he belongs to neither Fatah nor Hamas.

Hamas, for its part, has refused to recognize the dissolution of the government. Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh, who became prime minister shortly after Hamas swept up a majority of votes in Palestinian elections in January 2006, addressed Palestinians in a televised press conference Thursday as if he was still premier. "The existing government will carry out its duties and tasks in the best possible way, and will not give up its duties towards the Palestinian people," Mr. Haniyeh said.

In earlier comments, Haniyeh charged that the turmoil of the past few days was Fatah's fault. He charged that Fatah has abused its power and persecuted Islamists. "They pushed people into reacting," Haniyeh said. Haniyeh also called for restraint and suggested that Hamas wanted to return to a "national dialogue."

Throughout the week, however, Mr. Abbas's pleas that Hamas declare a cease-fire and return to talks with Fatah went unheeded. The embattled Palestinian president has indicated now that it's too late for dialogue.

In the wake of the upheaval, the US and the European Union have come out firmly in support of Abbas and have indicated that they are committed to the quick resumption of aid to the Palestinian Authority under his aegis. Most Western financial support to the Palestinian government has been withheld since the election of Hamas almost 18 months ago. The formation of the Palestinian unity government, following the powersharing Mecca Accord reached in February in Saudi Arabia, was only a slight alleviation of the problem. Most Western governments count Hamas as a terrorist organization and will not do business with it or allow funds to be sent to it.

Hamas, founded 20 years ago at the start of the first intifada, made its name through suicide bombings, and its leaders have defended their decision to deal with Israel through "resistance" rather than negotiations. US officials said they would seek to send funds and other forms of assistance to Abbas, and to ease other forms of sanctions that have been placed on the Palestinian Authority. "[He] was elected in 2005 by a large margin and we fully support him in his decision to try to end this crisis for the Palestinian people," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters Thursday. The EU made a similar statement, with EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner calling Abbas "the legitimate president of all Palestinians."

In Cairo, Arab League foreign ministers met on Friday in an emergency session to discuss the crisis and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. Members appealed to both Hamas and Fatah factions to return to Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks, which were overshadowed by the fighting that broke out a week ago. Egypt called on Hamas to accept Abbas's decree to dissolve the government and parliament, and to agree to participate in new elections Abbas is expected to call for in coming months. Some observers hoped that the Arab League ministers would call for an international force to intervene in the crisis.

Meanwhile, as the volleys of deadly fire in Gaza fell quiet on Friday, thousands of Hamas supporters began filling the streets to celebrate their victory. Masked militants paraded through the streets, waving the Islamic-green flag of Hamas and riding atop military vehicles that were seized from Fatah forces. Looters continued to gather anything of value they could find, picking office equipment and household items out of the former presidential headquarters, the offices of security services that stayed local to Fatah, and the private homes of prominent Fatah members.

"The fact that President Abbas has fired the Hamas government is a very positive move in our opinion, and makes it easier to deal with and help the moderates," Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said Friday.

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