Hamas, Abbas Reach Agreement for New Palestinian Government

Moderate President Mahmoud Abbas and negotiators from the Islamic militant group Hamas have reached agreement in principle on forming a government of independent experts, but they still need to wrap up important details, a Hamas Cabinet minister said Monday.

The platform of the new government would be intentionally vague, especially on the issue of recognizing Israel. It is not clear whether that would be acceptable to the international community, which has called on the Palestinian government to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept past agreements with Israel.

Abbas headed to the Gaza Strip for further talks with Hamas, Palestinian officials said, a possible signal that the two sides were nearing agreement on the government.

Under the emerging plan, the Hamas Cabinet and prime minister would step down and be replaced by a team of experts, in hopes that this will end a crippling international aid boycott, imposed when Hamas came to power in March.

However, top Hamas leaders have yet to decide whether to accept the plan, and negotiations have broken down before. At one stage, Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas had reached an agreement, but Hamas then withdrew its support, balking at key points in the government platform, including an implicit recognition of Israel.

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Haniyeh said he expected to meet Abbas on Monday night to discuss efforts to form a unity government.

"The government must lift the siege and suffering of the Palestinians," Haniyeh said.

The new compromise proposal would enable Hamas to appoint eight ministers and Abbas' Fatah would choose four, with the remainder of the portfolios awarded to smaller parties. The new prime minister would be chosen by Hamas, and a key sticking point is over how close he should be to the ruling party.

Abbas has urged Hamas to choose an independent to make the new government more attractive to the international community, his aides have said.

Haniyeh dismissed the dispute.

"The last thing we think about is who will be head of the government. We want to break the siege," he said.

Hamas' supreme decision-making body, the secret Shura Council, is to decide in the coming days whether to accept the proposal. If Hamas accepts, Abbas is to head to Gaza for a meeting with Haniyeh.

Wasfi Khabaha, a Hamas Cabinet minister, told The Associated Press he expected the meeting between Abbas and Haniyeh to take place by Wednesday. "We can say we have reached an agreement with the brothers in Fatah, but there are some points that need to be finalized between the president and the prime minister," he said.

The Quartet of Mideast peacemakers — the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — demands that any Palestinian government recognize Israel and renounce violence.

The latest round of talks moved ahead despite a weeklong Israeli offensive in northern Gaza border, aimed at halting Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli communities near the coastal strip.

More than 50 Palestinians, most of them militants, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes and shellings since last week. The offensive has drawn growing international criticism, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the military would press on.

At least five Palestinians died Monday from Gaza violence, including a female suicide bomber who blew herself up as she approached Israeli troops, witnesses and the army said. One soldier was slightly injured, the army said. Female suicide bombers are uncommon, though several have struck Israeli targets in recent years.

An airstrike hit a minivan parked in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, killing a 15-year-old boy and a man in his 20s, and wounding several others, including a 16-year-old boy who was in serious condition, hospital officials said.

A Palestinian security official said the van was empty and that all the wounded were passers-by. Resident Muhammad Matar, 35, said a group of militants had gathered on a street corner near a kindergarten, and that the strike was aimed at them, but they were not wounded.

The army said an airstrike in the same area targeted four militants coming to collect launchers used to fire rockets into Israel.

Another Palestinian, Hamas militant Mahmoud Taha, 24, was killed in an Israeli airstrike as he was firing homemade rockets into Israel, according to Hamas. The army had no comment.

Another militant was shot and killed in the area as he was firing a rocket, Hamas said. The army said ground forces shot a militant armed with a rocket launcher.