Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Friday he would step down as Palestinian prime minister if that would persuade the West to lift debilitating economic sanctions.
“When the issue of the siege is on one side, and my being prime minister is on the other, let the siege be lifted to end the suffering of the Palestinian people,” he said, referring to the international aid boycott that has devastated the Palestinian economy.
His offer appeared to be another indication that the Islamic militant group and the rival Fatah Party of President Mahmoud Abbas were inching closer to a national unity government made up of independent experts — a coalition that presumably would present a more moderate face to the world.
Haniyeh, a longtime Hamas leader, told worshippers at a Gaza mosque that Western countries wanted him out of government.
Hundreds of millions of dollars withheld
The West and Israel have withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and tax revenues since Hamas took power in March in an effort to pressure the ruling group to moderate its violently anti-Israel ideology.
The sanctions have prevented Hamas from paying a large portion of the salaries owed to 165,000 government employees, causing widespread hardship in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The international community, including the United States, has said it will not lift sanctions unless Hamas recognizes Israel, renounces violence and accepts past peace deals, something Hamas has so far refused to do.
The program of the proposed new unity government is vague on the key issue of recognizing Israel, calling for a Palestinian state on only the lands captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.
On Thursday, Abbas spoke by phone to his main political rival, Hamas’ supreme leader Khaled Mashaal — their first conversation in months. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said their discussion was proof that the two are in agreement on the shape of the new government.
However, weeks of up-and-down negotiations have failed to yield results, and a fresh breakdown in talks appeared possible.
Gaza death toll rises
The death toll from Israel’s artillery barrage in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun rose to 19 on Friday after Israeli hospital officials confirmed that one of the wounded transferred to Israel, Bassem Kafarna, had died in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital.
The shells landed Wednesday as residents were sleeping. It was the highest Palestinian civilian toll in a single incident since the current conflict erupted in September 2000. The highest toll of Israeli civilians was 29 killed in a Palestinian suicide bombing at a Passover gathering in March 2002.
The army said it was targeting areas where rockets had been fired in recent days at the Israeli cities. It said an investigation indicated the casualties were caused by a technical failure in the fire control system of an artillery battery.
In an interview with NBC’s “Today” show on Friday, Olmert, who is traveling to Washington next week, defended himself against critics who said Israel was using too much force against the Palestinians.
“We are very, very restrained in using power,” he said. “When someone criticizes us, I say what would you do when rockets fall on the heads of innocent Israelis?”
Defense Minister Amir Peretz has ordered the military to “re-evaluate its policy of artillery fire in Gaza,” his ministry said in a statement.