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Surprise Fatah, Hamas agreement irritates Israel

As Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah praise the possibility of a transitional government and new elections, Israel slams the 'understanding' and warns it won't work with a government in which Hamas members play a role.

Palestinians wave flags and chant slogans in support of a reconciliation between the rival Fatah and Hamas movements

Palestinians in Gaza were pleased with the unity deal

Israeli officials on Thursday criticized a Palestinian unity deal, saying they would not negotiate with a Hamas government and that Israel would consider a wide spectrum of measures against the Palestinian Authority if the deal comes to fruition.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would never accept a Hamas government.

"With this accord, a red line has been crossed," Lieberman told Israel's military radio, predicting that Hamas would win a Palestinian election and in addition to ruling the Gaza Strip would also take power in the West Bank, which is currently under Fatah's control.

A travel ban on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as well as a halt on transfers of taxes Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority were among the steps Israel could take, added Lieberman, who heads the Israel Beitenu party in coalition with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman with an EU flag in the background

Israel won't accept a Hamas-led Palestinian government, Lieberman said

Lieberman called on the international community to insist that any Palestinian government recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence and endorse past interim peace agreements. Those were also the three conditions set out by the Middle East Quartet, made up of the United States, European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Barak said the deal showed "the necessity of relying only on ourselves."

"The army and the security services will use an iron fist to deal with any threat and challenge," he told reporters. "We will never negotiate with Hamas, it's a criminal organization."

Barak reiterated Israeli's position not told hold discussions with Hamas, which he called "a murderous organization whose aim is to destroy Israel." The United States and European Union have both designated Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Years of antagonism

The surprise Palestinian deal announced Wednesday after months of failed rounds of talks provides for the formation of an interim government with a view to holding presidential and legislative elections within a year.

Fayyad expressed hope the understanding agreed to would be "an essential and important step to proceed to the immediate establishment of national unity."

A Palestinian boy walks past a drawing of a masked man shooting a gun

Hamas has been fighting against Fatah and Israel

The deal could end the political divide that has seen the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority govern the West Bank while the Islamist Hamas movement controls the Gaza Strip. Hamas and Fatah representatives have officially discussed reconciliation six times since 2009.

Tensions between the two factions date back to the start of limited Palestinian self-rule in the early 1990s when Fatah strongmen cracked down on Islamist activists. Relations between the groups worsened in January 2006 when, in a surprise general election rout, Hamas beat the previously dominant Fatah to grab more than half the seats in the Palestinian parliament.

Hamas then expelled Fatah from Gaza after a week of deadly clashes in June 2007, splitting the Palestinian territories into rival hostile camps.

On the heels of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in March, calling for Hamas and Fatah to put their differences to rest and reunite Palestinians.

Shortly after the deal was announced, Netanyahu warned Abbas that he must "choose between peace with Israel or peace with Hamas," a sentiment echoed by many in Israeli politics.

Impending isolation?

Haim Ramon, a leader of the opposition Kadima party, warned that the "status quo is a disaster for us from the policy and security point of view."

An Israeli flag flying outside a settlement in the West Bank

Some fear recognition of the new Palestinian deal could weaken Israel internationally

"If Israel does not launch a political initiative, the Quartet will end up recognizing Hamas," he told Israeli public radio. "Israel must announce that it will leave the Palestinian territories, but retain settlement blocs in a land swap. Presenting an initiative will lift the threat of international isolation," he added.

The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was following the Palestinians' agreement with "great interest."

"The EU has consistently called for peace and reconciliation, under the authority of President Abbas, leading to an end to the division between the West Bank and Gaza and in support of greater security and stability across the region," she said in a statement. "We will study the detail of this agreement and discuss with colleagues in the EU and in the region."

Washington also welcomed the deal but said any new Palestinian government must "renounce violence, abide by past agreements and recognize Israel's right to exist," said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.

Author: Sean Sinico (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

Editor: Rob Mudge

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