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Palestinian Authority announces new cabinet amid U.S. pressure

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RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Authority named the members of a new cabinet Thursday, pledging a technocratic government that could help rebuild Gaza and fight endemic corruption.

Mohammad Mustafa, appointed as prime minister earlier this month, announced the names of 22 new ministers who would join him in the government and outlined his vision, in a statement addressed to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The reshuffle at the highest ranks of the Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, comes amid U.S. and other international pressure to present a new face — driven by hopes, however tenuous, that the authority could overcome its credibility problems to play a role in rebuilding and governing what remains of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s ongoing military campaign.

Israel has vowed to crush Hamas, which gained power in Gaza in 2007 after violently ousting the authority. Israel’s targeting of key figures in the Hamas-led government — not just military leaders but also civil servants such as police — has led to a chaotic power vacuum, especially in the aid-starved north.

U.S. officials offered tentative praise for the new cabinet. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the administration was encouraged by the presence of ministers who were born in Gaza, a sign that the cabinet intended to be “fully representative of the Palestinian people.”

But in the West Bank, the incoming figures were greeted with shrugs. “I hope this government will do what is necessary to help the people, but the authority is weak,” said Salem Hamma, 37, a shop owner in East Jerusalem. “I have my doubts that this government will be capable of facing the challenge ahead, especially when it comes to rebuilding the Gaza Strip.”

The cabinet is “nothing new,” said Tareq Baconi, president of the board of Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank. He called the changes “cosmetic adjustments.”

The political shake-up addressed widespread international pressure as well as broad apathy and discontent with the Palestinian Authority, which was set up after the 1993 Oslo accords to administer the Palestinian territories.

Mustafa said in the statement that he was creating a nonpartisan government that could not only help reconstruct Gaza, but also fight corruption and unify divided Palestinian institutions.

The statement did not address the Palestinian Authority’s lack of power in Gaza. It also offered no indication that Abbas would relinquish his role as president. The 88-year-old leader has held power for two decades but has not held elections in 18 years.

A poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research released in December found that more than 90 percent of West Bank Palestinians wanted Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, to step down.

The United States has pushed Abbas to make significant reforms to the Palestinian Authority. But the appointment on March 14 of Mustafa, a close ally of Abbas, as prime minister was viewed as an indication that Abbas planned to retain political control rather than step back.

In the cabinet announcement, Mustafa said he would serve at the same time as foreign minister, ending speculation about who would take one of the most high-profile positions.

Few well-known figures were named. Ziad Hab al-Reeh, who had formerly served as chief of the Palestinian Authority’s internal intelligence agency, was retained as interior minister.

Khaled Elgindy, director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, said few ministers had any name recognition. The new cabinet lacks legitimacy because of the lack of elections and the Palestinian Authority’s continued security cooperation with Israel, Elgindy said.

Israeli officials offered little immediate reaction to the news. Raquela Karamson, a spokesperson with the Israeli prime minister’s office, said that unless the cabinet changed policies that allowed payments to families of people imprisoned by Israel for terrorism offenses, it would represent “no change.”

Some in the West Bank echoed the skepticism, for different reasons.

“The solution is to form a national unity government and consult all factions,” said Muhammed Ali, a 57-year-old real estate developer in Shuafat. “What will happen to this government after the war on Gaza ends? It will lose its legitimacy and collapse.”

Taylor reported from Washington. Lior Soroka contributed to this report.

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