Palestinians Celebrate In Gaza

Friday, February 9th 2007, 8:58 am
By: News On 6

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Gazans rejoiced in the streets to celebrate a Hamas-Fatah power-sharing deal they hope will avert civil war, but Palestinian officials preached patience Friday, saying implementing the agreement would be a challenge.

The agreement received a muted response from American and European officials, who said it was too early to decide whether to lift the crippling international sanctions on the Hamas-led government.

The rivalry between Hamas and Fatah began last year when Hamas won parliamentary elections and formed a Cabinet, splitting power with President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. The friction between the two groups paralyzed the government and eventually exploded into fighting that killed more than 130 Palestinians.

The two sides have tried unsuccessfully for months to reach a deal amid the violence. The success conclusion of an agreement in Saudi Arabia on Thursday sparked elation among people in Gaza.

``We have left behind all those black days forever and started a new page on a new government and a new way in Palestine,'' Abbas said.

Celebratory gunfire could be heard in several parts of Gaza City and fireworks lit up the sky. Some drivers flew both green Hamas flags and yellow Fatah banners from their cars.

``For four or five days we've been holding our breath. God willing, this is a permanent agreement, not a temporary truce,'' said Mahmoud Qassam, 27, a fish vendor in Gaza City. ``We hope this will lead to lifting the siege,'' a reference to the economic sanctions.

The West demanded that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist, accept past peace agreements with the Jewish state and renounce violence in order to escape the sanctions.

Hamas has refused those demands. The platform of the coalition government agreed to on Thursday says only that the government pledges to ``respect'' previous deals, instead of ``committing to'' them, as Abbas initially demanded. It makes no reference to recognizing Israel or renouncing violence, and it remains unclear whether the U.S. and Israel will be ready to deal with the new coalition.

In Washington, the State Department issued a cautious statement late Thursday that avoided judgment on reports of a deal, saying officials had not yet seen details of either the composition or the political program for the new government.

``In terms of what the outcome of those discussions look like and whether they meet the Quartet principles, I think we'll just have to see,'' State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said.

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett on Friday welcomed the ``ongoing efforts to end the violence'' but said Britain would ``need to study these proposals carefully and discuss them with our European and other partners.''

At stake is roughly $1 billion a year in frozen aid from foreign donors in addition to approximately $500 million in withheld tax revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. The embargo has crippled the Palestinian government's ability to function, though the West and Israel have funneled millions of dollars through Abbas' office to prevent a complete collapse of the government.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in Paris that inclusion of the term ``respect ... is a step in the right direction, toward full adherence to the demands of the international community that we hold dear, including in particular the recognition of Israel.''

Under the deal signed in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas will remain prime minister and Hamas will get a total of nine portfolios, compared to six for Fatah. Nine other Cabinet posts will go to independents and smaller factions.

Young men danced to the beat of drums, carrying each other on their shoulders.

``Today is a feast,'' Maysra Balawi, 24, said late Thursday as he tried to steer his car through jammed streets. ``It is the first happy protest I have seen in Gaza.''

Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri, speaking from Gaza, cautioned patience in celebrating the agreement.

It will be a great challenge to translate the agreement into reality on the ground and ``to prevent those seeking to spoil the Palestinian unity,'' he said, without elaborating.

Signaling that thorny issues remain unresolved, al-Masri said a Hamas militia that has repeatedly clashed with security forces will not be disbanded.

In a first Israeli response, government spokeswoman Miri Eisin reiterated the international community's conditions, but did not make clear whether the Mecca deal would satisfy Israel.

In Brussels, Belgium, EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin said there was hope a new unity government could end the factional violence among Palestinians, but said the bloc would make no sudden changes to its policy.

``We really need to see the terms of the agreement,'' Udwin said. ``We are going to be looking at it with a very open mind _ but we need to see in detail what it actually says before we take any decisions.''