GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday defended Washington's decision to work with a new Palestinian unity government, saying none of its ministers has ties to the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Israel has urged the U.S. and Europe to shun the technocrat government backed by Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah. Hamas has been blacklisted as a terror group by the West, while Fatah is led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is "deeply troubled" by the U.S. decision not to cut ties, using unusually blunt language in referring to Israel's main ally.
Kerry told reporters during a visit to Lebanon on Wednesday that "Israel is our friend, our strong ally," but didn't budge from the position announced by the State Department shortly after the unity government was sworn in Monday.
The secretary noted that Abbas has said the new government would follow his Western-backed policies, including continued security coordination between his forces and Israeli troops in the West Bank.
Kerry said the U.S. will watch the new government closely, but that based on Abbas' pledges, "we will work with it as ... is appropriate."
The new government "does not include any ministers who are affiliated with Hamas," Kerry said in his most detailed comments yet on the issue. "We have checked that. In fact, most of the key Cabinet positions — including the prime minister, the two deputy prime ministers, and the finance minister — are the very same as in the prior government."
The European Union has also expressed conditional support of the unity government sworn in Monday. The 17 ministers, though nominally independents, are seen as leaning toward Abbas and his Fatah movement or to leftist PLO factions.
Abbas needs continued political and financial support from the West to keep the new government afloat.
The formation of the technocrat government was a first step in ending a seven-year division following the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Since 2007, the rivals have run separate governments, Hamas in Gaza and Abbas in the autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The new government faces many challenges, including blending two large bureaucracies. Abbas' Palestinian Authority has some 150,000 on its payroll, including tens of thousands in Gaza who have stayed home from their jobs since 2007. Hamas, meanwhile, has hired more than 40,000 people for its own administration.
Rami Mihdawi, the spokesman of the West Bank-based Finance Ministry, said the Palestinian Authority employees would receive their monthly salaries on Wednesday. Meanwhile, it remains unclear if and when the Hamas loyalists will be paid.
Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said committees would be formed to discuss the details of reconciliation, indicating a tough road ahead with lots of opportunities for rancor and dispute.
In Gaza, new ministers took over in the justice, housing and labor ministries.
Outgoing Housing Minister Yousef Jahriz told employees who had been hired by Hamas that "the new government will work with you and take care of your salaries." He said the former employees, who have stayed home since the takeover, "are welcome to return."
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Beirut contributed to this report.