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August 31, 2014

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Palestinian government draws threats from Israel

Updated Monday, June 2, 2014 | 8:45 a.m.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a Palestinian unity government Monday, taking a major step toward ending a crippling split with his Hamas rivals but drawing harsh condemnations and threats from Israel.

The Israeli government said it would not negotiate with the new Palestinian government and authorized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impose financial sanctions. It also said it would hold Abbas responsible for any attacks emanating from the Gaza Strip, which after seven years of Hamas rule, is a militant stronghold with thousands of armed men prepared to battle Israel.

Israel is furious that Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has formed a government backed by the Islamic militant group Hamas. Although Hamas has no formal presence in the Cabinet, it has given its support to the government. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group.

"Abu Mazen said today 'yes to terror, and no to peace,'" Netanyahu said in a statement issued after a meeting with his Security Cabinet.

Israel has in the past withheld tens of millions of dollars in taxes it collects each month on behalf of the Palestinians, and it is possible Netanyahu will take a similar action to punish Abbas.

It remained unclear whether the U.S. or European Union, which send hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians each year, would work with the Palestinian government.

Despite the Israeli response, and some last-minute haggling with Hamas over the 17-member Cabinet of technocrats, Abbas was upbeat about prospects for ending the territorial and political rift that erupted when the Islamic militant Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from him in 2007. For seven years, the rivals ran separate governments, with Hamas in Gaza and Abbas ruling autonomous areas of the West Bank.

"This black page in our history has been turned forever and will never come back," he said before presiding over the Cabinet's first meeting.

Ismail Haniyeh, the outgoing Hamas prime minister in Gaza, said that "we are starting a new era, based on unity and partnership in decision-making and work."

Despite the optimism, the new Cabinet faces many difficulties. Key disputes, including over how to meld rival security forces in the West Bank and Gaza, have not been resolved.

Abbas has no assurances that the U.S. and Europe will keep sending aid that he needs to keep the new government afloat. The West considers Hamas a terrorist group, and the militants' support for the government could concern international donors.

Meanwhile, the new government will be even more expensive to maintain because Abbas has to blend tens of thousands of employees of two separate administrations.

The European Union and the U.S. have withheld judgment, but said they would only deal with a Palestinian government that recognizes Israel, renounces violence and adheres to agreements signed by its predecessors.

Abbas reiterated Monday that his new government would accept these conditions, which have repeatedly been rejected by Hamas in the past.

Barzak reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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