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December 20, 2014

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UN envoy visits Gaza in nod to Palestinian unity

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A United Nations envoy became the first senior international official Sunday to meet with ministers of the new Palestinian unity government in the formerly Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, assuring them of U.N. support.

Robert Serry's visit to came despite repeated Israeli appeals to the international community to shun the unity government, which is backed by rivals Hamas and Fatah.

The West considers the Islamic militant Hamas a terror group but appears to have accepted assurances by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, that the new Cabinet will follow his non-violent program.

Abbas swore in the 17-member technocrat government last week, more than a month after the collapse of a nine-month attempt by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

The unity government replaces two separate Palestinian administrations — one in Gaza run by Hamas and the other headed by Abbas in the autonomous parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The split between the long-standing rivals broke open after Hamas overran Gaza in 2007, wresting control there from Abbas.

In addition to the U.N., the United States and the European Union have also said they would give the new Cabinet a chance, provided it is committed to three rules — renouncing violence, recognizing Israel and adhering to previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Serry met Sunday with four Gaza-based ministers of the new Cabinet.

"I assured them of the full support of the United Nations, which is ready to increase its considerable program of works in Gaza, including in the priority areas of water and energy," Serry said in a statement. He called for lifting a border blockade that has been enforced to varying degrees by Israel and Egypt since the Hamas takeover.

Mofeed al-Hassaina, the new housing minister, said the meeting was important "because it reflects the international recognition of this unity government."

However, many difficulties lie ahead.

Abbas and his Hamas rivals haven't worked out the next steps toward reconciliation, including who should pay the salaries of more than 40,000 government employees hired by Hamas since 2007. It also remains unclear if Hamas will accept Abbas' demand that forces loyal to him be deployed at Gaza's border crossing with Egypt as a way of easing the blockade.

Meanwhile, Israeli-Palestinian tensions have risen. Last week, Israel announced it is promoting plans for hundreds more apartments in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, war-won lands Abbas wants for a Palestinian state, along with Gaza.

Abbas told Egyptian television station Sada al-Balad that he would respond by seeking membership for a state of Palestine in additional U.N. agencies. The U.N. General Assembly accepted a "state of Palestine" as a non-member observer in 2012, paving the way for such a state — even if it only exists in theory for now — to join international agencies and conventions.

"Israel approved new housing units (in settlements) and the entire world condemned that, including the United States," Abbas said in the interview broadcast late Saturday. "We said we stopped condemning, now we act. There are 48 U.N. agencies and we will join them all if Israel doesn't stop (building)."

In Israel, the Cabinet approved a bill that could complicate future Palestinian prisoner releases, a central element of negotiations with the Palestinians. The bill would allow Israeli courts to block the pardon of prisoners convicted of murder. Critics say that will limit Israel's room to maneuver in negotiations.

The bill would only apply to people convicted after the legislation becomes law, meaning prisoners currently serving would not be affected. The bill, proposed by several hard-line lawmakers, still needs to be approved by parliament.

Also Sunday, Gaza's Health Ministry said a 51-year-old Palestinian fisherman died from wounds he suffered after his boat was shot at by Israeli forces two weeks ago.

Israel limits how far Gaza fishermen can venture off shore and Israeli naval boats patrol the seas off Gaza's coast to maintain a naval blockade of the territory. It says the blockade is needed to prevent arms smuggling.

The Israeli military on Sunday declined to discuss the shooting.

Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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