Power shifts outside Israel

By Sarah El Deeb The Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Hamas formally took power yesterday, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swearing in 24 Cabinet ministers, including 14 who served time in Israeli prisons.

The ceremony came just a day after Israel’s election and drew clear lines of confrontation. Hamas says it will not soften its violent platform and Israel’s victorious Kadima Party says if that is the case, Israel will set the borders of a Palestinian state itself, without negotiations, and keep large areas of the West Bank.

Israeli officials said it is very unlikely acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will create a “Hamas bypass” and negotiate directly with the moderate Abbas as long as Hamas refuses to change. Abbas, leader of the defeated Fatah Party, was elected separately and wields considerable power.

With Hamas at the helm, the cash-strapped Palestinian government also faces a crippling international economic boycott, and may run into immediate difficulties next week when March salaries are to be paid for some 140,000 government employees.

Soon after yesterday’s swearing-in ceremony, Canada announced it was suspending aid to the Palestinian Authority. Other nations were expected to follow suit,

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said Canada had no choice but to suspend assistance and decline any contact with the new Hamas Cabinet.

“The stated platform of this government has not addressed the concerns raised by Canada and others concerning nonviolence, the recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the roadmap for peace,” MacKay said. “As a result, Canada will have no contact with the members of the Hamas Cabinet and is suspending assistance to the Palestinian Authority.”

Israel has suspended tens of millions of dollars in monthly tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority after the Hamas victory, and Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the Israeli Cabinet would decide on additional sanctions next week.

“With Hamas taking over now, you can’t have business as usual,” Regev said.

The Cabinet ministers took their oath in two ceremonies, held simultaneously in the West Bank and Gaza because Israel bans the travel of Hamas leaders between the two territories. The two locales were hooked up by video conference.

Abbas presided over the 10-minute ceremony in Gaza City, looking glum, then left without speaking.

The first to be sworn in was Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who walked along a red carpet, then placed his hand on a copy of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, laid out on a low table. He pledged to be “loyal to the homeland and its sacred places.”