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Hamas Cabinet in Place; Challenges Await

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Israelis voted on the same day that the Palestinian parliament overwhelmingly approved the new government headed by Hamas. That government is being sworn in today in the West Bank city of Ramala, and that's where NPR's Linda Gradstein is this morning. Hello.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Hamas, so far, has shown no interest in accepting Israel's right to exist. But its leader says he also has no interest in perpetuating the cycle of violence over the past five years. So where does that leave them?

GRADSTEIN: Well there's been conflicting messages coming from the Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniya. On one hand, he has said things like that, that he doesn't want to perpetuate the cycle of violence. At the same yesterday, after the cabinet was approved, he said that the Palestinians will continue resistance against Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister designate Ehud Olmert has said that Israel will only negotiate with a Hamas government if it completely renounces violence and accepts Israel's right to exist. So, at least in the short run, there doesn't seem to be a chance of the renewal of the peace process.

MONTAGNE: And has there been any reaction yet from the Palestinian leadership to the Israeli election?

GRADSTEIN: Well, Palestinian officials have said that they respect the choice of the Israeli people. Some of them have said that they hope the new Israeli government will resume negotiations based on the U.S.-backed roadmap to peace.

Ismail Haniya said that he urges for there to be a just peace in the Middle East, but most Palestinian officials have said they do not support Ehud Olmert's plan for a partial unilateral pullback from the West Bank. They said any agreement must come from negotiation; not unilaterally.

MONTAGNE: And what about the reaction from the Palestinian public to this sort of new turn in Israel?

GRADSTEIN: Well, they say that they don't see much of a difference between the incoming government of Ehud Olmert and the outgoing Likud-led government. They say that all Israeli leaders really are pretty much the same.

Palestinians on the street don't believe that the Israeli leadership wants peace. They say that if they had wanted peace, it could've happened a long time ago. So, they think that it will just perpetuate the Israeli occupation.

And, when I would say to people, well, Ehud Olmert says he wants to pull out of some of the West Bank, and they say, well, that already happened. Israeli troops did pull out of Palestinian areas, and then they, afterwards they went back in and conquered even more land.

So, there's kind of a very dismal feeling here on the streets, and the economy is very problematic. I was in one jewelry shop, and they said people are coming to sell gold, not to buy it. And they're selling their gold because they simply don't have any money to eat with.

MONTAGNE: And what about the threat that the installation of a Hamas government means an end to international aide for the Palestinian Authority?

GRADSTEIN: That's something that Palestinians are concerned about. Hamas officials have said they will go to places like Iran and other parts of the Arab world to sort of make up that money, but the Palestinian Authority is on the brink of collapse, anyway.

Israel has already cut off customs revenues and tax revenues that it owes the Palestinian Authority. And some Palestinian officials and analysts say that they are afraid that it could lead to a complete collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and armed chaos in the West Bank and Gaza.

MONTAGNE: Linda, thanks very much.

NPR's Linda Gradstein in the West Bank city of Ramala, where a government headed by the militant Hamas movement is being sworn in today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.
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