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Palestinians Form Unity Government

The rival Hamas and Fatah movements formed a long-elusive unity government Thursday, hoping to end bloody infighting and lead the Palestinians out of yearlong international isolation. Israel immediately said, however, that it would not deal with the new government.

Israel said the Palestinian government's program falls short of three international conditions for acceptance, including recognition of the Jewish state. However, a member of the incoming Cabinet said the program was not final and changes were possible before parliament approves the coalition Saturday.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Islamic militant Hamas announced the final coalition agreement after months of stop-and-go negotiations.

The coalition platform posted on Hamas and Fatah Web sites calls for continued observance of a truce with Israel but falls short of Israeli, U.S. and European requirements that the new government recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous peace deals.

The new government's platform includes only a vague pledge to "respect" past peace deals, falling short of explicit recognition of Israel.

It also affirms the Palestinians' right to resist and "defend themselves against any Israeli aggression."

While many in the West consider "resistance" to be a code word for violent attacks, Palestinians have a wide variety of definitions that can encompass anything from armed attacks to street protests.

Saleh Zidan, an incoming Cabinet minister from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a tiny faction, said possible program changes would be discussed later Thursday. One proposal is to limit the "right to resistance" to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, he said.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said his government will boycott the coalition government and encourage other countries to do the same because its program falls short of the international conditions for acceptance.

"Unfortunately the new Palestinian government seems to have said no to the three benchmarks of the international community," Regev said. "Accordingly, Israel will not deal with this new government and we hope the international community will stand firmly by its own principles and refuse to deal with a government that says no to peace and no to reconciliation."

A potential Palestinian suicide bomber and 10 Egyptians were arrested in the northern Sinai Peninsula, a security official said on Thursday.

The Palestinian, identified as Hamid al-Nador, was detained Tuesday while wearing an explosive belt inside a beach resort in the border city of el-Arish, the security official said speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

An Egyptian man, identified as Ahmed Abdel Moaz Mohammed, was arrested together with the Al-Nador, who said he was plotting attacks against Israelis, according to the official.

Western countries have said they will wait for the new government to take office before deciding whether to lift economic sanctions against the Palestinian government.

EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin said the European Commission needs to study the program and actions of the government before deciding "on how and indeed whether it is possible to gradually re-engage."

Haniyeh said the Palestinians have received encouraging signals from Europe.

"No doubt, there is a different position by the American administration and the Israelis," he said, adding that the new government would do its best to bring about an end to the boycott and "maintain relations with all the international community."

Haniyeh said he hoped the new government will "launch a new era" for the Palestinians.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a senior aide to moderate President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, said the new coalition opens the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

"This is the right moment to move toward the peace process," he told reporters. "If it (the international community) is serious, if it is looking toward stability in the Middle East, this is the right moment to go ahead" by implementing the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

Another Abbas aide, Nimr Hamad, said the new government represents all Palestinians.

"When Israel says it doesn't want to deal with it, it means it does not want to deal with the Palestinians," he said.

Haniyeh presented the Cabinet lineup Thursday — including 10 ministers from Hamas and six from Fatah — to Abbas, who accepted it. Haniyeh and Abbas agreed to the power-sharing deal last month in Saudi Arabia, but had spent the past few weeks ironing out the final details.

The final stage of the coalition talks dealt with one of the most difficult issues — who would fill the post of interior minister and assume control over the security forces. Most of the veteran members are loyal to Fatah, but Hamas last year formed its own 5,600-member militia.

Officials identified the new minister as Hani Kawasmeh, a senior Interior Ministry civil servant who has good relations with Hamas and Fatah but does not belong to either party. Mustafa Barghouti, the incoming information minister, confirmed the appointment.

Barghouti said other key appointments included Salam Fayyad, an internationally respected economist, as finance minister, and Ziad Abu Amr, an independent lawmaker, as foreign minister. Haniyeh will remain as prime minister, and Azzam al-Ahmed, head of Fatah's parliament bloc, will be deputy prime minister.

Hamas trounced the more moderate Fatah in parliamentary elections last year, giving it control over most government functions. But the Hamas-led government was crippled by Western sanctions imposed over its refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist.

Abbas, who was elected separately in 2005, has been pushing Hamas since last autumn to join Fatah in a more moderate coalition in hopes of lifting the Western boycott. The negotiations collapsed repeatedly, often sparking rounds of deadly factional fighting in Gaza.

As negotiations continued, there was an exchange of fire between Hamas and Fatah forces in the northern Gaza Strip. Security officials said nine people, including five bystanders, were slightly wounded in the shootout. More than 130 people have died in the infighting since last May.

On Thursday, a Fatah activist died of wounds he sustained the previous night in a shootout with Hamas gunmen in the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinian security officials said.

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