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Hamas Takes Power of Palestinian Authority

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The Islamist Hamas movement formally took power today when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas swore in his 24-member cabinet. Hamas has been labeled a terrorist organization by Israel and much of the international community, and those countries have promised to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority when Hamas takes over. Members of the new Hamas government say their goal is to serve their people.

NPR's Linda Gradstein was in Ramala today, in the West Bank, and she sent this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEN SPEAKING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

LINDA GRADSTEIN: In a modern hotel in the center of Ramala, the new cabinet members were laughing as they tried on the maroon ties they would all wear to their swearing-in ceremony. The ceremony was held in Gaza, with a video linkup to the West Bank. Ministers swore an oath on the Koran.

Incoming Prime Minister Ismail Haniya said his relations with President Abbas would be "cooperation and harmony, based on the supreme interests of the people."

One of the first challenges of the new government will be coping with an impending financial crisis. Much of the international community has threatened to withhold all aid to the Hamas government. Israel, which says Hamas is a terrorist organization, has already suspended transfers of customs and tax revenues, about $50 million dollars a month.

The new Deputy Prime Minister, Nasir Shaer, dressed in a well-tailored suit, says the international community would be making a mistake if it cuts off aid.

NASIR SHAER: We believe that they are going to change their minds, their decisions, because we need help first. We are not against the world, we are the people who are suffering. So, the world should stand with us and support us and help us.

Shaer says Israeli propaganda has convinced the world that Hamas is a terrorist organization. He says that for more than the past year, Hamas has strictly observed a hudna, or truce, and has not carried out any attacks against Israel. He says Hamas is prepared to extend this truce, perhaps for years. He says it is Israel that has violated the truce with assassinations of Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Another new cabinet minister, Fakhri Turkman, the Minister of Social Affairs, says the new government is more concerned with combating the corruption of the previous government than with launching attacks against Israel.

FAKHRI TURKMAN: (Through translator) The first issue is to provide safety and security and stability for the Palestinian citizens, and to crush all signs of chaos. The second priority is to find ways of dealing with the deteriorating economic situation, and to find ways of dealing with the high unemployment in the Palestinian society by finding ways of providing jobs for different people.

GRADSTEIN: Most Palestinians here in Ramala seemed willing to give the Hamas government a chance. Olmer Hamari (ph) is the owner of a jewelry store.

OLMER HAMARI: We did not try them before. We tried other people before, and everyone here is want to see some new faces. To see if they are do good jobs for the people here and their way of living.

GRADSTEIN: He says most people coming into his jewelry store are coming to sell their gold because they have no money for food. One woman who came in said she had never supported Abbas's Fatah or Hamas, but when she had three sons to send to university and a husband who's disabled, only Hamas offered assistance.

But it's not clear how the new government will function without much of the one billion dollars in annual international aid that the Palestinian Authority has received until now.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News. 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.