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New Palestinian Cabinet Sworn In

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A 24-member Palestinian Cabinet dominated by professional appointees, including nearly half with doctoral degrees, took office Thursday after being approved by the parliament in a major move toward long-promised government reform.

The new Cabinet was sworn in by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, hours after parliament gave its approval.

In other developments:

  • Israeli police are preparing for drastic scenarios if and when the 21 Gaza settlements are evacuated. According to an Israeli newspaper, the settlers might resist by unleashing attack dogs, building trenches, and hurling hot oil at police. The most extreme scenario is that settlers could fire their weapons, or commit a Waco-style mass suicide. The withdrawal is planned for July.
  • Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz instructed the security establishment to shorten the time it needs to implement the Gaza withdrawal to less than the scheduled eight weeks, in an attempt to minimize clashes with settlers.
  • NATO wants to increase its military cooperation with Israel, especially in the areas of sharing intelligence and fighting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the alliance's secretary general said Thursday. However, Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that would not be "designed as a first step to a future membership."
  • Israeli warplanes flew over villages in southern Lebanon at low altitude Thursday, carrying out mock raids, Lebanese security officials said. Israeli planes frequently violate Lebanese airspace, and the Lebanese army and guerrillas of the Hezbollah group usually respond with anti-aircraft fire. On occasion, shrapnel from anti-aircraft fire has landed on Israeli border communities, provoking Israeli retaliation.

    The composition of the new Palestinian cabinet is seen as an important step toward Palestinian reform, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger.

    The 54-12 vote, with four abstentions, ended days of wrangling between rebellious legislators and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who initially sought to retain political cronies from the Arafat era.

    "They are young and professional, and I think they are capable of carrying out their jobs. We have chosen them very carefully," Abbas said of the new Cabinet members.

    Abbas had intervened in the dispute between parliament and his prime minister, and persuaded legislators from his Fatah Party to support a Cabinet largely consisting of ministers chosen for their expertise, not political loyalty.

    The crisis strengthened Abbas and weakened Qureia, who may not survive as prime minister beyond parliamentary elections in July, after which a new Cabinet would be formed. After Yasser Arafat's death in November, Abbas and Qureia cooperated during a transition period, but relations have cooled since then.

    Abbas won Jan. 9 presidential elections in part on a promise to reform the government and the security services. His new Cabinet is largely devoid of politicians, and 17 of the ministers are newcomers.

    Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom praised the appointment of the Cabinet as a "positive step," but said he would withhold final judgment until the government's approach to militant groups becomes clear. Abbas has said he would avoid confrontation with militants, and it appears unlikely the new Cabinet would adopt a different approach.

    Virtually all the new ministers are experts in the field they are to oversee, including 10 with doctorates, a medical doctor, a lawyer, several engineers and several with master's degrees. The technology minister, Sabri Saidam, 41, holds a doctorate in electric engineering. The new agriculture minister, Walid Abed Rabbo, has a Ph.D. in human resource management from the United States and served in Jordan's agriculture ministry before becoming a consultant in the Palestinian agriculture ministry.

    Only two of the 24 are women, the same as in the outgoing Cabinet. One of the women is in charge of the women's affairs ministry, the second has no portfolio.

    The names were chosen in Wednesday's meeting between Abbas and Fatah legislators, said Abbas Zaki, a top Fatah official. "We had about 100 names of top professionals, and we chose them one-by-one, not through voting, but by consensus, as the best to handle these posts," he said.

    The method stood in stark contrast to the formation of Cabinets in the Arafat era, when he would choose the ministers based on loyalty.

    "It's a turning point in the rationale, the approach and the methodology of forming Cabinets, in going beyond political patronage ... and to look for people who can deliver," said legislator Hanan Ashrawi.

    Among the key appointments are Nasser Yousef, a tough ex-general who as interior minister will oversee security reform and try to rein in Palestinian militants. Nasser Al-Kidwa, the former Palestinian representative to the United Nations and an Arafat nephew, is foreign minister.

    Salam Fayyad, the Palestinians' widely respected finance minister for the last three years, kept his job. Saeb Erekat continues in his role as chief negotiator with Israel, but without his Cabinet position.