RAMALLAH, West Bank >> The new Palestinian unity government faced a new crisis on Sunday after President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to dissolve his alliance with Hamas if the Islamic militant group does not give up power in the Gaza Strip.
The dispute erupted just over two weeks after Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza ended in a cease-fire. Abbas is looking to regain a foothold in Gaza, which suffered heavy losses during the fighting, and expects to play a leading role in internationally backed reconstruction efforts. His comments, which also included harsh criticism of Hamas’ conduct in the war, appeared to be part of a brewing power struggle over who will control post-war Gaza.
Hamas has controlled Gaza since overrunning Abbas’ forces in 2007. Facing international isolation and a deep financial crisis, the Islamic militant group agreed to the formation of a new unity government with Abbas’ Fatah movement in June, in which it would restore governing power to Abbas in the territory. But it has yet to yield power — even after the devastating war against Israel, which killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and caused billions of dollars of damage.
“We will not accept having a partnership if their status in Gaza remains this way,” Abbas said late Saturday in Cairo in comments carried by Egypt’s state news agency MENA.
“Unity has terms. This situation does not represent any kind of unity,” Abbas said. “If Hamas does not want one authority, one law, one weapon, we will not accept a partnership with it.” Abbas said that as long as Hamas remains in control of Gaza, he added, “the government of national unity can do nothing on the ground.”
The comments set the stage for what are expected to be difficult negotiations with Hamas in the coming days. With his criticism, Abbas appears to be putting pressure on Hamas to make concessions in the talks.
Ismail Radwan, a Hamas leader, denounced Abbas’ comments, saying they “contradict the spirit of the new partnership and play down the victory of the resistance.”
Under the unity agreement, Abbas formed a Cabinet of apolitical technocrats. Hamas, which is shunned by the international community as a terrorist group, has no formal role, but it has offered its backing from the outside. Israel has boycotted the government, saying Hamas’ involvement is clear, while Western countries are giving the government a chance to prove itself.
The government, however, has failed to get off the ground.
Shortly after it was formed, three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank were kidnapped and killed by Hamas members, setting off a chain of events that led to the Gaza war. Hamas, meanwhile, remains in firm control of Gaza, with a depleted, but still significant, arsenal of rockets and thousands of armed fighters.
Abbas heaped fierce criticism of the group’s handling of the war, accusing it of making unrealistic demands for a full lifting of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and dragging out cease-fire talks.
“With every passing day, more blood was shed,” he said, criticizing the heavy death toll and damage. “Is this the victory they talk about? Regrettably, I can only say the results are tragic,” he said.
In the coming weeks, Israel and Hamas are expected to start a new round of indirect, Egyptian-mediated talks for an extended cease-fire. Hamas is demanding a full lifting of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza, including the reopening of a sea and airport. Israel has said the blockade will remain in effect as long as Hamas controls Gaza.
The international community has made clear that all funding and reconstruction efforts be handled through Abbas’ government. Israel, and the West, want guarantees that none of the aid will be diverted for military use by Hamas. A conference of donor nations is expected to take place in October.
Hamas has expressed willingness to turn over control of border crossings with Israel and Egypt to Abbas’ forces. But over the weekend, Ismail Haniyeh, a top Hamas leader in Gaza, rejected Israel’s demand that the group be disarmed as a condition for ending the blockade.
In the internal Palestinian negotiations, aides to Abbas say the president will drive a hard bargain against the weakened Hamas, and is seeking full control of Gaza.
Separately Sunday, the father of a Palestinian teenager wounded during a demonstration in Jerusalem last week said his son had died of his wounds.
Abdelmajed Sunokrot says that his 16-year old son Mohammed was shot in the head with a rubber bullet fired by Israeli soldiers and died Sunday in an Israeli hospital. He says his son had been merely passing the demonstration in east Jerusalem when he was injured.
Israel police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld disputed the account, saying that Sunokrot was hit in the leg with a paint-ball type projectile while throwing stones. He said the teen was arrested and taken a hospital to treat his injury.
A spokeswoman at Hadassah Medical Center declined to give a cause of death.