Fiery start for Hamas leadership
Militant group rejects Abbas’ call to negotiate with Israelis

Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' apparent choice for prime minister, center, greets lawmakers inside the Palestinian parliament in Gaza City on Saturday.

Updated: 9:03 a.m. ET Feb. 18, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Hamas began its majority rule in the Palestinian parliament on Saturday and quickly rejected President Mahmoud Abbas’ call to negotiate with the Israelis and respect existing peace agreements.

Abbas spoke at the opening session of the new Hamas-dominated Palestinian parliament, after the new legislators were sworn in. Hamas controls 74 of 132 seats, but Abbas has considerable powers as Palestinian Authority president.

He said the Hamas victory in last month’s parliament election — and the defeat of his Fatah Party — have led to a new political reality. “Therefore, it (Hamas) will be asked to form the new government,” Abbas said. “On my part, you will find all the cooperation and encouragement you need, because our national interest is our first and final goal, and is above any individual faction.”

Hamas is pledged to Israel’s destruction, staunchly opposes the interim peace deals of the 1990s and refuses to moderate its ways, despite growing international pressure and threats of tough Israeli sanctions, including a blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Abbas’ list of demands Saturday suggested he is heading into a showdown with the militants, though his aides said it’s not sure yet whether Abbas would fire a Hamas prime minister who refuses to accept his policies.

Among the members of Hamas to take the oath of office was a Palestinian who sent her son on a suicide mission against Israel.

Mariam Farhat and others in Hamas are confident they’ll be able to govern, even alleviate poverty in the West Bank and Gaza, with help from God and cash from the Muslim world.

But life is bound to get a lot harder quickly, with Israel planning sanctions, including a blockade of Gaza and a travel ban between the two Palestinian territories.

Because of Israel travel bans, Saturday’s parliament session was held simultaneously in Gaza City and the West Bank city of Ramallah, with legislators in the two places hooked up by video conference. Many of the 132 legislators did not attend: 14 are in Israeli prisons, and two are on the run from the Israeli security forces.

Threats from West met with defiance
Hamas has responded with bluster and evasion to the West’s threats to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid if the group does not renounce violence and recognize Israel.

“We are ready to eat the leaves off the trees, before we make a trade for our rights and our land,” said Abdel Aziz Duaik, Hamas’ nominee for parliament speaker. “We will depend on Allah .... He is our sustainer, not the United States or the West.”

Farhat, the incoming Hamas lawmaker, also brushed aside money woes, saying Muslim countries would come to the rescue.

In recent days, she and others in the Hamas faction were taught by the group’s leaders about parliamentary procedures and assigned responsibilities. Women will preside over welfare, health and education, and Farhat said she’s eager to improve Gaza’s hospitals and increase stipends for the poor.

Demure in a gray robe, the mother of 10 got into parliament as the unlikely symbol of holy war, or jihad, against Israel. Three of her six sons died violent deaths, and one of Hamas’ top bomb makers, Emad Akel, was killed in a hail of Israeli fire in her front yard after hiding in her basement for a year.

In 2002, Farhat sent her 18-year-old son Mohammed on a suicide mission, a shooting rampage in the Jewish settlement of Atzmona that killed five Israeli teenagers. After Israel withdrew from Gaza last summer, the Farhat family returned to the settlement, took what they said was the piece of wire fence Mohammed had cut to get in, and mounted it on an outer wall of their home.

Farhat is unapologetic. She said she cries for her boys, but that “jihad comes ahead of everything, including my feelings as a mother.”

Many of those who voted for Hamas in the Jan. 25 parliamentary election do not share her violent views. They support peace talks with Israel, and just wanted to punish Abbas’ Fatah for years of corruption, mismanagement and arrogance.

Ala al-Hayek, 35, who owns a tile factory in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, is now starting to realize his vote for Hamas may cost him his livelihood.

Hamas supporters unwavering
In the coming days, Israel plans to cut all trade with Gaza except for humanitarian needs, and al-Hayek will have to lay off most of his 22 workers or even shut down. He imports raw materials and exports two-thirds of his product to Israel and the West Bank. For now, al-Hayek said he doesn’t regret backing Hamas, and blames Israel for any hardships.

Another Hamas voter, Ali Freij, 52, said he’d have to shut his grocery if the borders close. The shelves of the cramped store in Gaza’s Shati refugee camp are stocked with noodles and lentils from Turkey, salt and wheat from Israel, and cookies and tissues from the West Bank.

Yet Freij relishes Hamas’ defiance. “Gaza needs freedom, not food,” said the father of 12.

Sanctions still await approval by Israel’s Cabinet on Sunday. As a first step, Israel would bar 5,000 Gaza laborers and 4,000 traders from entering Israel. All traffic between Gaza and the West Bank would stop, including trips by legislators.

Fatah leaders said they believe voters will soon realize they bought into empty Hamas slogans.

“If elections were held today, the result would be totally different,” said outgoing Information Minister Nabil Shaath, waiting in the rain at Gaza’s Erez crossing to make his last trip to the West Bank, via Israel, before the border closes.

Shaath, who once toured the world to raise money for the Palestinian Authority, said he doubts Hamas could scrape together enough to run the government.

“We have a real problem with Arab aid,” he said. “I don’t see anyone stepping in.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.