GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The new Palestinian unity government held a Cabinet meeting in the war-battered Gaza Strip for the first time Thursday, marking the end of more than seven years of absolute Hamas control of the coastal territory.
In establishing a Gaza foothold, the Cabinet also tried to assure the international community that foreign aid for Gaza's reconstruction will not reach the Islamic militant Hamas, shunned by the West as a terror group.
The Cabinet meeting came three days before an international pledging conference in Cairo where Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is to seek $4 billion for Gaza reconstruction after a 50-day war there this summer between Israel and Hamas.
Still, it remains unclear how much authority the Cabinet will have on the ground. It is made up of independent experts, none of whom are declared members of the two main Palestinian movements, Hamas and Fatah.
Hamas has said it would allow the ministers, who report to Abbas, to operate freely in Gaza. However, Hamas has refused to disband its security forces, creating a potentially volatile situation.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and 11 ministers arrived in Gaza from the West Bank, joining five colleagues who were already present in Gaza.
After entering Gaza through an Israeli-controlled crossing, the ministers toured the town of Beit Hanoun and the Gaza City neighborhood of Shijaiyah, both badly damaged during the war.
Hamas security forces formed cordons, linking arms, as curious and unruly crowds thronged the ministers. Later, as the visitors drove through Shijaiyah in a convoy, hundreds of people lined the street to watch, some waving and a few holding the yellow flags of Fatah.
The Cabinet convened in Abbas' former residence in Gaza City.
"What we have seen today is horrible," Hamdallah said at the start of the meeting. "I cried in Beit Hanoun when I saw how the people live and sleep. The priority is reconstruction" and political unification, he said.
Hamas said Thursday it would be supportive.
"This unity government was the result of a reconciliation agreement that Hamas worked hard for," said Izzat al-Rishq, a senior Hamas official in Doha, Qatar's capital. "Therefore, we have a real and serious interest in enabling it (the new government) to work successfully in Gaza."
After the Cabinet meeting, the ministers visited the top Hamas official, Ismail Haniyeh, in a show of good will. Haniyeh's house in the Shati refugee camp was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike during the war, and he met with the ministers in a reception area next to the debris of his home.
Haniyeh had served as prime minister for both the West Bank and Gaza after Hamas won parliament elections in 2006. He was fired by Abbas a year later, after Hamas seized Gaza by force.
The takeover triggered a border blockade of Gaza by neighboring Israel and Egypt, and over the years, repeated reconciliation attempts failed.
Hamas became increasingly unable to govern after new Egyptian border restrictions last year drove it in its worst financial crisis since its founding in 1987.
Earlier this year, a desperate Hamas agreed to hand over some authority in Gaza to an Abbas-led unity government.
The new government was formed four months ago to replace rival administrations — one led by Hamas in Gaza and the other headed by Abbas in autonomous areas of the West Bank.
However, it hadn't been operating in Gaza until now because of unresolved disputes between the long-time rivals and because of the war.
Palestinian unity is a consensus issue, with polls consistently showing a majority in favor of ending the political split.
In Gaza, many hope the new government will be able to ease border restrictions and revive the crippled economy.
"I hope the new government will open the crossings and that our life will improve," said Ahmed Bakir, 30, a psychologist sitting on a bench in a Gaza City park. "We hope they (the ministers) will speak to Hamas and solve the problems together."
Israel initially refused to deal with the unity government because it is backed by Hamas. Since the Gaza war, Israel has signaled readiness to work with the Palestinian Cabinet, particularly on Gaza reconstruction.
In a show of good will, Israel opened its Erez crossing into Gaza for the West Bank-based ministers on Thursday even though the crossing was meant to be closed for a Jewish holiday.
As part of the restrictions on Gaza, Israel has prevented the import of construction materials, with the exception of shipments intended for projects supervised by international agencies, including the United Nations.
Israel fears Hamas will divert cement and steel for military use, including attack tunnels. Israel spotted and destroyed more than 30 such tunnels during the recent Gaza war.
Under a U.N.-brokered reconstruction deal, Israel is to ease the import of building materials, while U.N. inspectors and forces loyal to Abbas are to monitor the shipments until their final destination.
Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank.