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Hamas to present cabinet on eve of Israel vote

Written by: Staff

GAZA, Mar 27 (Reuters) The Palestinian militant group Hamas will move one step closer to office today when prime minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh presents his cabinet and government agenda to parliament for approval.

The parliament session comes on the eve of elections in Israel, where the main issue is a plan by interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to withdraw from remote Jewish settlements in the West Bank while strengthening bigger enclaves if peacemaking with the Palestinians remains frozen.

Ahead of the parliamentary session, the Israeli army killed an Islamic Jihad gunman who was firing rocket-propelled grenades into Israel from the northern Gaza Strip, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. Israel also carried out an unsuccessful air strike on a militant's car.

Hamas, which swept Palestinian elections in January, is formally committed to Israel's destruction and has given no sign it will alter its policy or disarm. Olmert's centrist Kadima party is predicted by polls to win most seats in Israel's vote.

Palestinian lawmakers are expected to hold a vote of confidence on the Hamas cabinet and government programme on Tuesday or Wednesday after debating both. Approval should be a certainty because Hamas holds the majority of seats.

Haniyeh has said the cabinet will be sworn in by Wednesday.

Today's parliament session is due to start at 11 a.m. (1430 hrs IST) in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Haniyeh is due to deliver a speech by video-link from the Gaza Strip. Citing security concerns, Israel prohibits Hamas officials in Gaza from travelling to the West Bank.

During today's session, Haniyeh will read Hamas's 15-page cabinet programme, Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri said.

Hamas's broad governing agenda calls for using any means to end Israeli occupation. It also seeks to eradicate corruption and create jobs.

''Most likely tomorrow lawmakers will vote on the cabinet following the debate on the programme,'' Masri said. ''We are confident this cabinet will win confidence and will begin its work.'' Hamas has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings against Israelis since 2000, but it has largely respected a ceasefire for the past year. Violence involving other factions has continued sporadically.

CONFLICT Earlier today, a commander of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement, said he escaped an Israeli attempt to kill him in an air strike.

The army said it targeted a vehicle carrying militants behind cross-border rocket fire.

Masri said Israel was trying to ''destabilise the region ahead of the function of the new (Palestinian) government''.

Israel has vowed not to deal with the new Hamas-led administration. It has already cut tax revenue transfers to the Palestinian Authority.

The ''Quartet'' of Middle East mediators -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- has said Hamas must recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept past peace agreements or risk losing vital aid.

The 24-member cabinet is dominated by Hamas loyalists after all other Palestinian factions refused to join. It includes several independents, including one Christian.

Abbas, a moderate who seeks a Palestinian state alongside Israel, has appealed for Hamas to change. Hamas trounced his long-dominant Fatah faction in the January polls.

Abbas said on Saturday he could overrule Hamas if it continues to block peacemaking. The president is empowered by law to fire Haniyeh if his policies are deemed harmful to the national interest.

However, any replacement would need to be approved by the Hamas-dominated parliament.

Olmert has called the Israeli election a referendum on his ''consolidation'' plan, a proposal to evacuate isolated settlements in the occupied West Bank while strengthening larger enclaves if peace efforts go nowhere.

''Olmert can withdraw if he wants to, but the point is that we will never recognise as definitive borders (what) he is imposing unilaterally,'' Haniyeh told Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper.


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