Hamas introduced a cabinet Sunday that creates a hard-line Palestinian government - lacking moderate forces and led by some of the Islamic organization's most militant actors. It's a signal, say analysts, that the Palestinian leadership appears willing to forgo much of the funding it has been receiving from Western nations.
The crucial diplomatic position of foreign minister, for example, went to Mahmoud Zahar, who is adamantly opposed to any softening of Hamas's position that Israel should be destroyed. Dr. Zahar is known for his fiery rhetoric and vocal support for the organization's use of suicide bombings.
"The international community has to respect the choice of the Palestinian people," says Ahmed Abdel-Aziz Mubarek, a newly elected Hamas legislator from Ramallah. "The majority of the Palestinian people gave their votes to Hamas to establish the new government, so the world has to deal with this reality."
The world's response, however, is an increasingly complicated matter. Countries that have in the past been actively engaged in the now-dormant peace process and in giving aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) are facing a difficult choice: how to withhold political support for Hamas without turning off humanitarian aid, especially at a time of increased instability. It is not clear how much of the estimated $1 billion a year the Palestinians get in foreign aid might be withheld. Hamas has vowed to replace it with funds from Iran and other Muslim states.
Russia and Turkey, a moderate Muslim country, recently hosted Hamas delegations in the wake of the January election landslide. But Israel, the US, and the European Union have shunned any political contacts with Hamas unless it meets several criteria outlined by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in January: recognize Israel, respect previously signed peace accords, and forswear violence.
Zahar, a physician, has risen to become one of the organization's most senior members, particularly since several others in the uppermost echelons of the Islamic organization were assassinated by Israel over the past few years. Zahar, too, has been the target of at least two Israeli attempts to kill him, making it unlikely, say analysts, that he or his Israeli counterparts will soon sit at the same negotiating table.
While Zahar is viewed as unbending in his beliefs, says Mr. Mubarek, that does not mean that he will define the entire outlook of the PA.
"The policy of the government will not be swayed by one member of the government only," says Mubarek. "That Mahmoud Zahar will be foreign minister will not make too much of a difference in how we approach things, because the government has its policy, and all the members will have to work according to this policy. We will ask the international community to force Israel to give the Palestinian people their rights."
In a government platform released this weekend, Hamas outlined what it believes those rights to be: the right of return for all Palestinian refugees to their land, a release of Palestinian prisoners, and an end to the Israeli occupation. The document, as translated by Reuters, says if Israel withdraws from the land it occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, "it will be possible to look into a mechanism of negotiation."
But Zahar, expressing a more rigid view of the conflict, has long said that all of historical Palestine is holy to Islam and must be liberated. He says that altering Hamas's charter, which calls for the Jewish state's destruction, is out of the question; Israel has said it won't deal with Hamas under the current charter.
From Israel's point of view, Zahar as foreign minister - a post that had never officially been filled in the past - is simply a symbol of what Israel faces with Hamas at the helm.
"The problem is not with the particular personalities in the cabinet: the problem is that it is a Hamas cabinet," says Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev. "Zahar is particularly outrageous in what he says, but he's more honest than some of the other ones." Without moderating their viewpoint, he predicts, the new cabinet may lead to a situation where the PA will become a pariah government.
Several other senior figures in Hamas named to the Cabinet are considered to be relatively moderate. These include Said Siyam, who was tapped to be interior minister, and Omar Abdel Razeq, who would serve as finance minister. About half of the seats in the 24-member cabinet go to Hamas members, while other ministries were expected to be given to independent lawmakers of professionals with technical experience.
Western officials initially hoped that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the heretofore ruling Fatah faction - whose leaders reached a historic peace deal with Israel in 1993 - could act as a go-between, bridging the gap between Hamas and Israel.
Mr. Abbas, who was directly elected more than a year ago following the death of long-reining PLO leader Yasser Arafat, technically holds presidential powers that enable him to override legislative branch decisions by vetoing them. But Abbas is in an increasingly weak position following Israel's raid last week on a prison in the West Bank city of Jericho, which embarrassed Abbas and only underscored his political ineffectiveness.
"Today I will meet [Prime Minister] Ismail Haniyeh and we will see the [formation] of the cabinet. After that the legal procedures will take place such as going to [parliament] and the swearing in," Abbas told a news conference Sunday at the Rafah terminal on the Egyptian border.
• Material from Reuters was used in this report.