Palestinian PM reassures EU over new government

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories (AFP) - Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah assured European diplomats on Tuesday that his new unity government would respect past agreements with Israel, after chairing the cabinet's first meeting.

The new 17-member cabinet was sworn in on Monday before president Mahmud Abbas, in line with a surprise reconciliation deal reached in April between Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas and the PLO, which dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

"Hamdallah stressed that the government is committed to all international agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation... international political initiatives and peaceful solutions," his office said.

Hamdallah was briefing EU representatives to the Palestinian territories on his new government, telling them also that his cabinet would focus on service provision and resolving pressing water issues in the Gaza Strip.

He later gave UN peace envoy Robert Serry the same assurances, adding that the government's "main mission is to prepare for free and democratic elections," a separate statement said.

After chairing the new cabinet's first meeting, Hamdallah told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah that the "main subject the government discussed was how to reunite the institutions in the West Bank and Gaza."

"Employees were asked to return to work," he said, referring to people from Abbas's Fatah party who worked in Gaza-based government ministries before the Islamist Hamas movement forcibly took over the territory in 2007, splitting the Palestinian territories into two separate camps.

Despite the alliance with Hamas, which does not recognise Israel and is pledged to its destruction, Abbas has said the government would abide by the principles of the Middle East Quartet.

"The government is committed to the principle of the two states on the border of 1967. The government is also committed to recognising the State of Israel, renouncing violence and honouring the signed agreements," he said on Monday.

"As we have stated in the past, we will continue with security coordination with Israel as this protects our people's interests."

John Gatt-Rutter, the EU representative to the Palestinian territories, assured Hamdallah of the support of the 28-nation bloc for his new government, said the Palestinian leader's office.

France also said it was "ready to work" with the new government.

"France is ready to work with a Palestinian Authority government as long as it rejects violence, is committed to the peace process and respects all previous agreements, which implies recognising Israel," its foreign ministry said.

Washington has also agreed to work with the new government, prompting a furious reaction from Israel, which had urged the international community not to rush into recognising the new entity.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his opposition to Europe dealing with the Palestinian unity government.

"The Palestinian unity government with backing from the Hamas terrorist organisation is a Palestinian step against peace and in favour of terrorism and... therefore it would be a mistake to grant it legitimacy," he said in a statement.

"No European country would be prepared to accept a terrorist organisation as part of its government."