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Hamas to Form Government Without Partners
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Hamas ended coalition talks Thursday after failing to secure a single party as a partner, but said it will form a government on its own — a scenario likely to ensure international isolation for the Islamic militants.

The new Cabinet, to be presented to parliament next week, must also win the approval of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been telling Hamas, which swept January elections, that it must first renounce violence and accept interim peace accords with Israel.

Hamas has rejected those demands, also made by Israel, the United States and Europe, which label Hamas a terrorist group. Israel has already suspended monthly transfer of tens of millions of dollars in tax money to the Palestinians, and Western donors are considering cutting aid — a critical element in the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority's budget.

Representatives from the US, Russia, European Union and United Nations — the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators — were gathering in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday to discuss how to bypass the Palestinian Authority and get aid directly to the Palestinians.

The World Bank warned in a report released Thursday that cutting off funds would devastate the struggling Palestinian economy.

Without the money, the Palestinian economy would contract by 27 percent and income levels would drop by 30 percent this year alone — levels comparable to a deep depression.

The Hamas victory has placed Abbas in the difficult situation of having to deal with a Cabinet controlled by a rival party while facing crippling economic sanctions.

Abbas is expected to ask Hamas to rework its government program, an official close to Abbas said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to reveal the contents of the negotiations.

The main sticking point in Palestinian coalition talks has been Hamas' refusal to recognize a 1988 unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence that included a recognition of Israel.

Hamas legislator Mushir al-Masri said Thursday marked the final round of negotiations. He did not say outright that the talks had failed. However, the small Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which had been considered a likely coalition partner, said it did not find common ground. Abbas' Fatah has said it would not join a Hamas government.

Al-Masri said that if Hamas did not find coalition partners, it would present a Cabinet of independents, technocrats and Hamas politicians to parliament on Monday.

Hamas has said it would reserve the top posts of foreign minister, interior minister and finance minister for itself.

Hamas hoped for a broad-based government, partly to deflect international criticism, but refused to bend its principles.

Abbas has the right to veto the composition of a Hamas government, or ask that some ministers be replaced, but since the Hamas-dominated parliament needs to approve the Cabinet, Abbas cannot impose a government of his choosing.

Also Thursday, Israeli soldiers raided the West Bank town of Jenin and surrounded two hideouts, demanding the surrender of five fugitives from Islamic Jihad and the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. A gunfight erupted, and an Israeli soldier was killed. The military was checking the possibility he was hit by Israeli gunfire.

The operation came two days after the army raided the Jericho jail, capturing six militants, including PFLP leader Ahmed Saadat, the suspected mastermind of the 2001 assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister.

Opponents of acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert charged that the raid was an election stunt, less than two weeks before Israelis choose a new parliament. Olmert hotly denied that.

Polls in two Israeli newspapers Thursday showed almost identical results, with small changes in Olmert's favor from the week before.

Olmert's Kadima maintained its huge lead with 39 seats of the 120 in the parliament, ahead of the moderate Labor with 19-20 and hawkish Likud with 15, the polls said.

The poll in the Maariv daily by the Teleseker firm interviewed 500 voters, while the Dahaf poll in the Yediot Ahronot paper covered 1,002 voters. Both factored in only those who said they were sure to vote and quoted margins of error of 4.4 percentage points.

The leading European human rights body said Thursday it has decided to invite Palestinian lawmakers from the Hamas group to Strasbourg, France, in hopes of bringing them together with Israeli counterparts who were also asked to come.

The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly said it would invite members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, including Hamas deputies, and members of the Israeli parliament to its April 10-13 session.

Israel's Foreign Ministry condemned the idea of inviting Hamas to the Council of Europe, calling Hamas a terrorist organization.

"This is a slap in the face to the very principles upon which the Council of Europe was established, namely democracy, human rights and the rule of law," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

(Chinadaily.com via agencies March 17, 2006)

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