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Low-key oath for Hamas MPs

Members of the militant Palestinian group Hamas have been sworn in in the West Bank town of Ramallah and in Gaza City. The BBC's Martin Patience and Alan Johnston followed the ceremony.

MARTIN PATIENCE RAMALLAH

From 0900 [0700 GMT] onwards the new members of the Palestinian legislature began arriving at the Presidential compound in Ramallah for the swearing-in of the new parliament.

Many had left their homes across the West Bank on Thursday night, fearful that Israeli roadblocks would prevent them from attending the ceremony.

But for the new Hamas members of parliament the journey had been the longest.

The party's stunning election victory last month was the first Palestinian legislative election they had contested.

At 0930 the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swept into the compound in a six-vehicle convoy, with heavily armed bodyguards hanging from open car doors.

In the ceremonial hall where the swearing-in was taking place, the new Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) members, gathered along with foreign diplomats and prominent Palestinian dignitaries.

A Muslim preacher standing behind a wooden lectern, close to a Palestinian flag, read a sura from the Koran to open up the ceremony.

Hamas poster in Ramallah
Hamas is known for espousing conservative Islamic values

The outgoing speaker of the Palestinian parliament Rowhi Fattouh then read a roll call of all the elected members.

When they heard their name, the members held up their hand, acknowledging their presence, not unlike a school roll call.

In the hall there was a video link to the PLC in Gaza, as some members from that area were banned from travelling to the West Bank.

Before President Abbas spoke to the newly-elected members they were collectively sworn in.

In the hall the mood was low-key with one senior member passing the time playing with his mobile phone. Other members were seen using their prayer beads.

A remark by one of the speakers at the ceremony infuriated a Fatah member who stormed out of the hall.

An elderly man wearing a red chequered kaffiyeh stood up from his seat and started shouting at the speaker for being disrespectful.

But outside, at one of the compound entrances, a group of about 70 Palestinians had gathered, holding photographs of their sons who they consider to be Palestinian martyrs and political prisoners.

"They are the most important issue," said Nagid Ombuss, 45, holding a picture of his son Ahmed who was killed by Israeli forces in 2002.

"I'm here to see what they say they will do for the prisoners."

ALAN JOHNSTON, GAZA

The Hamas leadership has spent years ducking in and out of hiding - hunted by the Israelis. Most of the movement's major figures have been assassinated.

But now the survivors have stepped out of the shadows, and into power.

They were able to stride into the makeshift parliament building in Gaza knowing that their election win has given them a healthy majority.

Among them was Ismail Haniya, a huge smiling, grey-bearded figure - seen as a moderate and a pragmatist, and the man almost certain to be the new prime minister.

And a little earlier, in a clamour of cameras and press attention, Mahmoud Zahhar had taken his seat.

Nobody knows better than Mr Zahhar how very rough Palestinian politics can be.

Back in the summer of 2003, when Hamas suicide bombers were striking in Israel, he survived an Israeli air attack intended to kill him. His home was demolished and his son died.

A few years before, Mr Zahhar had been thrown in jail by the leaders of the Fatah party that his Hamas movement has just soundly defeated in the election.

For a moment the tensions that are always just below the surface of Palestinian life erupted into the parliamentary chamber.

A man in the crowd at the back began shouting that three of his relatives had been killed by the Israelis.

He demanded that the new deputies help the families of what he called "the martyrs".

When the session finally got under way, the Hamas men watched the video feed from Ramallah as President Mahmoud Abbas made clear his view that the Palestinians must continue to try to negotiate a settlement with Israel.

Of course, Hamas sees this fundamental issue in a very different light.

It regards not just the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza as occupied territory.

For Hamas all of Israel itself is rightfully Palestinian land. It says that there should be no negotiations - no laying down of weapons.

Obviously the relationship between the President and the parliament is potentially very awkward.

But Hamas has worked with Mr Abbas in the past. It hopes that understandings can be reached.

"These differences between our positions and political programme will be resolved through dialogue," said Ismail Haniya.

It may be that Hamas will do nothing to try to prevent Mr Abbas from attempting to negotiate with Israel - believing that he will get nowhere anyway.

And the whole question of whether or not to talk peace seems rather academic at the moment. There has been no real dialogue for a year.

The Israelis refused to engage with Mr Abbas because he was not disarming Hamas. And now that Hamas is actually in power, peace talks have never seemed further away.



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