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Hamas to present cabinet on eve of Israeli vote

Written by: Staff

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Mar 27 (Reuters) The Palestinian militant group Hamas will take 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 if peacemaking with the Palestinians remains frozen.

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 legislators are expected to hold a vote of confidence on the Hamas cabinet and government programme tomorrow or Wednesday after debating both. It should be a formality because of the Islamic group's majority.

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

today's parliament session is due to start at 1100 hrs in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

''The prime minister-designate will present his cabinet programme ... and he will ask parliament to vote in favour of it,'' said Khaled Suleiman, a Hamas legislator.

Haniyeh is also 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.

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

Hamas has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings against Israelis since 2000, but has largely respected a ceasefire for the past year.

Violence involving other factions has continued sporadically.

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 today. The army said it targeted militants involved in rocket attacks.

Israel has vowed not to deal with the new Hamas-led government.

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 relative 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.

But 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.

Palestinians have said such steps would deny them the viable state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and effectively annex territory.

Reuters SHB DB0918

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