The Islamic militant group Hamas is officially in control of the Palestinian Authority after the group's 24-member cabinet was sworn in. The ceremony could mark the beginning of a period of intense confrontation between Hamas and the international community over the Hamas refusal to disarm and recognize Israel.
Hamas cabinet members put their hands on a copy of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and swore to be loyal to the "homeland and its holy places," as they took the oath of office. Of the 24 cabinet members, 14 have served time in Israeli jails.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas presided over the ceremony in the Gaza Strip where Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, and other leading members of the cabinet reside. Because of Israeli travel restrictions on Hamas leaders, other cabinet members were sworn in by a video link from the West Bank city of Ramallah.
At a news conference, following the swearing-in ceremony, Prime Minister Haniyeh pledged to support any peace initiatives that President Abbas pursues as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Haniyeh says Hamas will support any negotiations that President Abbas undertakes to ease tensions in the region and that his government will study any peace initiatives that follow what he describes as "Palestinian principles."
In brief remarks following Haniyeh, President Abbas said many differences remain between his positions and Hamas, and that Hamas knows "what is required of it, including in its dealings with Israel."
The swearing-in ceremony came two months after Hamas won Palestinian Parliamentary elections on January 25, winning 74 seats in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council, soundly defeating President Abbas' Fatah Party.
Since then the group, which is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel, and the European Union, has stubbornly refused to budge from its position of not recognizing Israel.
Israel has put in place measures to cut off the transfer of about $50 million a month in tax and customs revenue it normally turns over to the Palestinian Authority.
The European Union has pledged to continue humanitarian aid, but also says it will not work with a Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority. The United States has ordered its diplomats and contractors to stop all contacts with the Palestinian Authority.
Samir Abdullah, the director of the independent Economic Studies Institute in Ramallah, says he believes if international donors go through with their plans to cut financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority, Hamas could be strengthened.
"This is the wrong approach," he said. "If the Hamas government fails as a result of this pressure no one will blame it. Believe me if it fails and we have a collapse and a bankruptcy in the budget and the president asks for a new election, Hamas will get even more votes than it got a few months ago.
The Hamas Cabinet was installed a day after Israelis voted in national elections to give Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima Party the mandate he says he wants to draw Israel's final border with the Palestinians. The plan involves withdrawing from most West Bank settlements, but keeping large settlement blocs and demarcating Israel's border along the controversial West Bank separation barrier.
Hamas as well as other Palestinian leaders criticized the plan, saying it could lead to another cycle of violence in the region.