Ramallah - A long-awaited Palestinian unity government was sworn in before president Mahmud Abbas on Monday after a landmark reconciliation deal with the Islamist Hamas that has infuriated Israel.
Following a ceremony at the Muqataa presidential compound in Ramallah, Abbas hailed "the end" of a bitter and sometimes bloody divide between his Fatah movement and the rival Hamas which rules Gaza.
Hamas also applauded the new government as representing "all Palestinians," saying it was a "turning point" in its formerly bitter relations with Fatah.
Standing on a red carpet lined with Palestinian flags, the new ministers filed past, each laying their hand on either a Qur’an or a Bible to take the oath of office as Abbas stood by.
It is the first Palestinian unity government to take office in seven years, and the first fruits of a landmark reconciliation deal signed in April.
"Today, with the formation of a national consensus government, we announce the end of a Palestinian division that has greatly damaged our national case," said Abbas.
"This black page in history has been turned forever," he pledged in remarks echoed by the outgoing Hamas government in Gaza.
"We hail the national consensus government, which represents all the Palestinian people," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP, describing it as "a turning point".
Hours earlier, a dispute over the fate of the prisoners' ministry raised fears the government could be delayed, but the issue was resolved after the parties agreed the portfolio would be held by prime minister Rami Hamdallah. He will also head the interior ministry.
The new cabinet, which was pieced together by Fatah and Hamas, counts 17 ministers, all of them political independents. Technocratic in nature, the new government will not have a political mandate.
The government includes three women and five ministers who come from Gaza. Over the weekend, Israel blocked three of the Gazans from travelling to Ramallah for the oath-taking.
Abbas has pledged that the new administration will abide by the principles laid down by the Middle East peace Quartet: recognise Israel, reject violence and abide by all existing agreements.
Under terms of a deal inked on April 23, the Fatah-led Palestine Liberation Organisation agreed to work with Hamas to establish an interim government of independents that would organise long-delayed elections.
The surprise agreement sought to end years of bitter and sometimes bloody rivalry which had seen the establishment of rival Palestinian administrations, with the West Bank ruled by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, and Gaza under Hamas authority.
On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned Abbas to express "concern about Hamas's role in any such government," the State Department said.
There was no immediate reaction from Israel which has made no secret of its opposition to the unity agreement with Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
"I call on all responsible elements within the international community not to hurry to recognise the Palestinian government that Hamas is part of," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday.
Again on Monday, he hit out at Europe for demonstrating "ambiguity" to the idea of unity with Hamas, which is blacklisted by the European Union and Washington as a "terror organisation."
Israel's security cabinet met overnight to discuss the new government, reconfirming an April decision to halt negotiations with any government backed by Hamas, newspapers reported on Monday. There was no comment from Netanyahu's office.
In a separate development just hours before the government ceremony, rocket fire from Gaza and Syria struck Israel in two separate incidents that prompted the military to launch two air raids on the Strip, and to fire across the Syrian ceasefire line in the occupied Golan Heights. - AFP