May 3, 2009 0:52 | Updated May 3, 2009 5:52
By KHALED ABU TOAMEH
MAHMOUD HABBASH has become a vocal critic of Hamas.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is considering the possibility of asking a former Hamas representative to head a new PA government in the West Bank, a PA official in Ramallah revealed over the weekend.
The official said that Mahmoud Habbash, who broke away from Hamas several years ago and is currently the minister of Social Welfare in the government of Salaam Fayad, was Abbas's favorite candidate for the premiership.
"President Abbas will first ask Fayad to head the new government," the official said. "But if Fayad turns down the offer, the president will ask Habbash to form the government." Unlike Fayad, Habbash is a leading religious figure and a devout Muslim. His appointment would be seen as an attempt on the part of Abbas to win the sympathy of Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters.
A former resident of the Gaza Strip, Habbash moved to the West Bank more than two years ago after Abbas offered him a job in the Fayad government.
Since then he has become one of the most vocal critics of Hamas. During Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip earlier this year, Habbash held a series of press conferences in Ramallah in which he accused Hamas of killing and torturing Fatah members and stealing humanitarian and medical aid sent to the Gaza Strip by international organizations.
Hamas officials have accused Habbash of financial corruption, saying he had been expelled from the Islamic movement following suspicions that he had been involved in embezzlement.
The London-based pan-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat daily quoted a source close to Abbas as saying that the appointment of Habbash would be aimed at "snatching the motto of Islam from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Iran."
Hamas has warned Abbas against forming a new government in the West Bank, saying that such a step would deal a fatal blow to efforts to end the power struggle between the two sides and solidify divisions among the Palestinians.
Egyptian-sponsored negotiations between Hamas and Fatah have thus far failed to produce agreement over a Palestinian unity government.
PA officials in Ramallah said over the weekend that it was clear by now that the chances of striking a deal with Hamas are very slim.
The main sticking point remains the political program of the unity government and whether it would recognize Israel's right to exist and previous agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Earlier this year, Fayad submitted his resignation to Abbas, saying he wanted to pave the way for the formation of a Fatah-Hamas government. At the request of Abbas, Fayad has agreed to remain in his post until the end of the talks with Hamas.
Hamas had made it clear that it would not join any government that is headed by Fayad, whom it accuses of collaboration with Israel and the US in launching a massive crackdown on supporters of the Islamic movement in the West Bank.
Hamas sources told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday that the PA security forces in the arrested more than 145 Hamas supporters in the West Bank last month.
Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for the PA president, said that Abbas was seeking to establish a new government that would include, in addition to Fatah members, representatives of other Palestinian factions.
However, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the two "rejectionist," Syrian-based groups said that they would not join any government that is formed in the West Bank.
"We need a new government, whether the talks with Hamas fail or succeed," Abu Rudaineh said. "We hope from the bottom of our hearts that the talks will succeed and lead to the establishment of a unity government that would rebuild the Gaza Strip. The international community is telling us that we don't have a government in Palestine; the government of Salaam Fayad has resigned and they don't recognize the legitimacy of the Hamas government."