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Hamas Undoes New Powers Given to Palestinian President

Fatah lawmakers walk out of parliament in protest. An airstrike by Israel kills two Islamic Jihad militants and three bystanders.

March 07, 2006|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — In a sharp challenge to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Hamas-dominated parliament Monday annulled a series of measures by the outgoing legislature aimed at strengthening the president's powers.

Hours later, tensions were stoked when an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City killed two Palestinian militants and three passersby, one of them an 8-year-old boy. Israel acknowledged having carried out the "targeted killing" of an Islamic Jihad field operative it said was responsible for a number of attacks against Israelis. It expressed regret over any civilian casualties.

The confrontation in the Palestinian parliament raised fears that Hamas, the militant movement that decisively won January's legislative elections, was turning its back on the notion of compromise and conciliation with Abbas' Fatah, the more moderate and secular faction it defeated.

Fatah lawmakers walked out in protest just before the annulment vote, which took place during the parliament's first full working session. The new legislature had met just once previously, on Feb. 18, for a ceremonial swearing-in.

Monday's stormy six-hour session was held at separate parliament buildings in the West Bank town of Ramallah and in Gaza City, which were connected by a video link. Many lawmakers from Gaza, including the seaside territory's entire Hamas contingent, are prevented by Israel from traveling to the West Bank.

The distance did little to paper over the clear animosity between the two sides. Fatah stalwart Mohammed Dahlan told the Hamas lawmakers that seeking to annul decisions by the previous parliament was "a dangerous precedent." Mahmoud Zahar, the majority leader and a senior Hamas figure, visibly glowered as he accused Fatah of trying to disrupt the new parliament's work.

"This is something we will not accept," he said.

The annulled measures would have given Abbas the power to appoint a constitutional court with the authority to rule on any dispute between the executive branch and lawmakers, or between the president and the new Cabinet that Hamas is expected to put forth in coming weeks.

The nine-member court also would have had the power to veto laws deemed in violation of the Palestinians' quasi-constitutional Basic Law.

Hamas lawmakers also overturned five appointments to senior posts, all of them Fatah members, which were approved by the previous parliament.

As has often been the case since Hamas' upset victory, the threat of violence hung over the gathering.

Fatah gunmen, who have gone on shooting rampages to protest the loss of government privileges, strode up and down outside the parliament building in Gaza City.

The parliamentary quarrel makes it even more unlikely that Fatah will agree to enter into a governing coalition with Hamas. Fatah's senior leaders as well as the rank and file have brushed aside the prospect of such an alliance.

In Gaza City, an angry crowd gathered outside the main Shifa Hospital, where the bodies of those killed and injured in the Israeli airstrike had been brought. Doctors said eight people were wounded in the explosion in the city's Shajaiyeh district, which came as many people were heading home from work or shopping for evening meals.

A spokesman for Islamic Jihad's military wing promised to take revenge for what he confirmed to be the deaths of two of the group's fighters.

"We will escalate our attacks at the Zionist enemy," said the spokesman, who goes by the name of Abu Hamza. "We will strike at the heart of Israel.... We call on the Zionists to get some coffins ready."

The Israeli army said in a statement that the raid had targeted Munir Mahmed Mahmed Sukhar, a 30-year-old Islamic Jihad operative it said was responsible for rocket attacks against Israel and the attempted smuggling of would-be suicide bombers and explosives into Israel from Egypt.

Islamic Jihad, which has rejected a truce that is largely being adhered to by Hamas, was responsible for all six suicide bombings in Israel last year. Hamas halted its campaign of suicide bombings when it entered politics a year ago.

In recent months, Israel has steadily been targeting Islamic Jihad militants, often with airstrikes like Monday's in urban areas.

A witness, Zohir Maarouf, said he and other onlookers rushed to help the injured after the massive explosion rocked his busy street.

"I grabbed a woman who was hurt and bleeding and carried her to my car and rushed to the hospital," he said.

In an unrelated incident, two teenage Palestinian brothers were killed in an explosion on the outskirts of the Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip.

The camp's mayor, Kamal Bughdadi, said the boys, ages 14 and 15, were thought to have been playing with unexploded Israeli ordnance, perhaps a tank shell.

Special correspondents Maher Abukhater in Ramallah and Rushdie abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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