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West rallies round Abbas as rivals vie for legitimacy

MAHMOUD Abbas, the Palestinian President, swore in an emergency government in the West Bank yesterday.

The move was denounced as "illegal" by the dismissed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya, whose Islamic movement has taken control of the Gaza Strip.

As the two rival Palestinian governments traded barbs, Israeli forces moved into positions inside the northern Gaza Strip in response to Hamas's violent sweep to power. The Israeli company that provides fuel to Gaza shut off deliveries for all depots in Gaza except those feeding power stations.

Two Katyusha rockets were fired into the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona from Lebanon, causing some damage to vehicles and buildings but no injuries. The Lebanese Army said that it prevented the firing of a third rocket. Israel blamed Palestinian groups operating from refugee camps across the border.

Israel and the international community have rallied around Mr Abbas's secular Fatah leadership - which has lost control of the Gaza Strip - and moved to stifle the new fiefdom established by Hamas, which was described yesterday by Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, as "gangsters" who had carried out a coup d'etat.

But Hamas likewise denounced the new emergency government headed by the former World Bank technocrat, Salam Fayyad, for executing a "coup" against the militant Hamas-led government, which came to power 18 months ago in democratic elections.

Facing total isolation in the Gaza Strip, Palestinians started panic-buying basic commodities over the past weekend. Hundreds have tried to flee into Israel. The Israeli authorities, however, have closed the border crossings, refusing to deal with Hamas, which calls for the Jewish state's destruction.

With Gaza's 1.4million people trapped in the 140- square-mile coastal strip and facing imminent shortages, Mr Fayyad, the new prime minister in the West Bank, said that his emergency administration's first task was to address the security situation.

Mr Abbas, in no mood to negotiate with Hamas, issued a decree outlawing the movement's militia branches "due to their military coup against the Palestinian legitimacy and its institutions".

Even as the shutters were coming down around Gaza, doors have been opening up to the West Bank as the international community rushed to shore up Mr Abbas's new government of moderates. Washington, which had refused to provide any funding for the Palestinians while Hamas was in power, said that it would lift a ban on direct financial aid to the new emergency government, clearing the way for the European Union and Israel to follow suit.

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President Bush will make a major speech about the Middle East next Sunday - which comes five years after the US president had first supported a "two-state solution" for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Optimistic

In Washington, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, sounded a cautiously optimistic note about the separation between moderate Fatah leaders and the Hamas Islamists.

At the same time, Israel is prepared to release frozen tax revenue worth around US$600m due to the Abbas government. Some sources suggest that Mr Bush will ask Mr Olmert to make other concessions such as dismantling roadblocks in the West Bank. (© The Times, London)

PALESTINIANS' BITTER DILEMMA: COMMENT P26


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