Palestinian unity Cabinet to hold first Gaza session

GAZA, Gaza Strip – Members of the new Palestinian unity government assembled in Gaza on Thursday for their first Cabinet session in the war-battered territory – a largely symbolic meeting meant to mark the end of absolute Hamas control of the coastal strip.

The gathering, set for midday, comes three days ahead of an international pledging conference where Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will seek $4 billion for Gaza reconstruction following a 50-day war there this summer between Israel and Hamas. The war ended Aug. 26.

Several of the ministers arrived in the Gaza Strip after travelling from the West Bank on Thursday morning, including the new Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. He spoke hopefully of a new era between the militant Hamas movement and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

“We have put the years of split behind us and started the reconciliation process as a crucial step to alert the international community to its responsibilities in helping reconstruct Gaza and lift the blockade,” he said.

Israel has prevented the arrival in Gaza of many types of construction materials and other goods, fearing that Hamas could use them to manufacture rockets and other weapons. By meeting in Gaza for the first time, the unity government of independent experts hopes to reassure donors that it can lead reconstruction efforts and that funds pledged for Gaza will not reach Hamas, shunned by the West as a terror group.

However, it remains unclear how much authority the unity government, which reports to Abbas, will have on the ground. Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, has said it will step aside, but has refused to disband its security forces.

The unity government was formed four months ago to replace rival governments in separate territories – one led by Hamas in Gaza and the other headed by Abbas in autonomous areas of the West Bank. However, it hasn’t been operating in Gaza until now, both because of unresolved disputes between Abbas and Hamas and because of the recent summer war.

Ehab Bseiso, a government spokesman, said that 12 Cabinet ministers left the West Bank on Thursday morning, en route to Gaza. The trip takes the ministers through Israel, including two Israeli-run crossings.

Israel initially refused to deal with the unity government because it is backed by Hamas. Since the Gaza war, Israel has signalled readiness to work with the Palestinian Cabinet, particularly on Gaza reconstruction. And its willingness to accommodate the West Bank-based ministers’ passage to Gaza appeared to be a sign of goodwill, coming as it does on a Jewish holiday when Gaza-Israel crossings are normally closed.

In Gaza, the ministers were to be joined by five colleagues who are based in the territory or arrived here earlier.

The group was to tour areas destroyed during the war before holding its Cabinet meeting at Abbas’ former residence in Gaza.

In preparation for the meeting, a sign reading “Prime Minister’s Office” was affixed to the entrance of the Abbas residence.