RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday promoted the idea of a Cabinet of technocrats as a way to ease crippling Western sanctions, but he pledged not to force it on Hamas.
Hamas — the Islamic ruling party — was cool to the idea.
Abbas addressed reporters for more than an hour at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah Tuesday evening. In his strongest endorsement yet of the technocrat idea of a Cabinet made up of professionals instead of politicians, he said it should be "considered seriously" as a way out of the current deadlock.
Hamas swept to power in January parliamentary elections, unseating Abbas' Fatah Party, which had controlled Palestinian political life for decades. But as soon as Hamas set up its government, the U.S., European Union and Israel cut off funding, listing Hamas as a terror group because of its history of sending suicide bombers into Israel.
Months of contacts over a unity government, bringing Fatah back to the Cabinet table, have broken down over Hamas refusal to accept international demands of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and endorsing past peace accords.
Elected separately in 2005, Abbas has the authority to dismiss the government, disperse the parliament and call new elections. However, polls show Fatah and Hamas virtually tied, making that a risky move. He told reporters that he would not move toward a technocrat government without Hamas approval.
"I prefer it as a solution, because it does solve the problem, but there should be an agreement how long it should serve," Abbas said.
Hamas, ruling with an absolute majority in the parliament, did not appear eager to adopt the idea.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said a broad-based coalition government is still the best option, adding, "if a national coalition government cannot shoulder the burden of meeting the demands of all our people, I don't think that a technocrat government can carry this responsibility."
An official close to Abbas said the Palestinian president did not set a deadline and did not appear to be in a hurry to bring the government crisis to a head. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
The Fatah-Hamas struggle, accompanied by severe economic hardships resulting from the Western aid cutoff, has sparked armed violence between rival security forces. At least 12 people have been killed in the clashes during the past two weeks.
Abbas said a new force of 5,700 armed men, fielded by Interior Minister Said Siyam of Hamas, is illegal. "There is no legitimacy for any force that is created anywhere so long as I didn't approve it," he said. The other security forces are loyal to Fatah.
Israeli-Palestinian violence continued Tuesday.
In three separate clashes in the northern West Bank on Tuesday, Israeli soldiers killed four Palestinians. In the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinians said undercover soldiers opened fire on a car, killing a local leader of the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and his cousin who was sitting next to him.
The Israeli military said the militant was responsible for attacks against Israelis.
In the nearby town of Qabatiyeh, soldiers killed an Islamic Jihad militant. Troops there also fired at Palestinians who were throwing rocks at them, killing one, both sides said.
Palestinians said a member of Hamas was killed near the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza during an exchange of fire with troops operating there.
Another man was also shot dead during the exchange, the Palestinians said, although it was not known if he was a participant or a bystander.
The army said it was checking the report.
The military also said Tuesday that its forces discovered a tunnel between Gaza and Egypt near the Israeli border. The military said it was used to smuggle weapons into Gaza. Also, two other tunnel shafts were discovered, the military said. Soldiers planned to blow them up later in the day.
The Israelis say they have discovered 13 such tunnels in the past three months. Israel charges that since it withdrew from Gaza a year ago, turning control of the border over to Egypt and the Palestinians, arms smuggling into Gaza has greatly increased.