Meet the Palestinians' New Leader

  • Share
  • Read Later

Mohammed Shabir walks through Islamic University in Gaza City Monday Nov. 13, 2006.

Sitting in front of his blackboard in a Gaza university, Professor Mohammed Shabir, 60, is more at home in the microscopic realms of squirming protozoa than he is with Palestinian realpolitik. But that may soon change. The main Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas need to come up with a compromise candidate for prime minister of a unity government led by technocrats, and Shabir may be just the man. The position needs someone respected by the armed Palestinian factions, who at the same time is acceptable to the international community, which has withheld funds from the Palestinian Authority since Hamas took power. It's not yet official, but informed Palestinian officials say Shabir, educated in micro-biology in West Virginia and former head of the Islamic University in Gaza, has got the job.

The professor's acquaintance with virulent strains of bacteria may prove useful in dealing with warring Palestinian organisms — notably the Fatah movement led by President Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamist miitants of outgoing Prime Minister Ismael Haniyah's Hamas, who has recently as weeks ago were on the verge of open civil war. All that changed after the Israeli forces sliced into Gaza last month in an effort to stop militants launching homemade rockets at Israel. The incursion forced Hamas and Fatah gunmen who had been eyeing each other warily on Gaza street corners to once again confront a common enemy. An Israeli shelling incident, in which 19 Palestinians were killed in their sleep, also gave Palestinian leaders a sobering jolt. The Israelis say the shelling was an accident, but the impact had the unforeseen effect of bringing Abbas and Haniyeh closer together.

At a Nov. 11 rally, Haniyeh told his Hamas supporters that the Israelis have "one condition, that the siege (on Gaza) will not be lifted unless the prime minister is changed. When the issue is like this, the siege on one hand, the prime minister on the other... I prefer that the siege be lifted and the suffering ended." Haniyeh then offered to resign.

Haniyeh's gesture paved the way for a resumption of talks with Abbas. They revived old plans to form a cabinet of technocrats as a way to dodge international sanctions against the government of Hamas, aimed at forcing the organization to renounce violence and recognize Israel. Palestinians negotiators told TIME that the new cabinet may still contain nine Hamas ministers, six from Fatah, five independents including Prof. Shabir, and four others from parties within the parliament. The next foreign minister is likely to be to a Georgetown educated professor, Ziad Abu Amr, 56, who has ties with Hamas even though he criticized their suicide bombing spree (halted since 2004) and thinks that the Islamic militants should soften some of their attitudes towards Israel. The finance portfolio is expected to go to economist Salam Fayyad, 54, educated in Texas, who earned the respect of international financial institutions during his previous tenure as finance minister between 2002 and 2006. Palestinians joke that with three "Americans" in the cabinet, the White House at last ought to be happy.

Palestinian negotiators warn, however, that before the biologist's government is installed, Israel will have to lift its siege of Gaza and free dozens of captive Hamas parliamentarians. But that will only happen if Palestinian militants release Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier snatched on the Gaza border last June. Negotiations are underway to free the corporal, but complications could arise.

Even if that chain of events allows Shabir to be installed, there are no guarantees that the Bush Administration will be any more likely to recognize this government. At a Wednesday meeting in Cairo of the "Quartet" — the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — the U.S. representative voiced concern that Hamas ministers would still be in the new Palestinian government.

But international consensus on Hamas may be starting to unravel. For the moment, Hamas officials are reduced to smuggling suitcases of cash into Gaza to pay salaries to government employees. But Arabs states were so outraged that the U.S. used its veto power to stop a U.N. resolution condemning the Israel killings in Gaza that they vowed to break the embargo and start sending funds to the Palestinians. In Cairo, say insiders, the Europeans, the U.N. and the Russians began distancing themselves from the hard-line U.S. stance, claiming that the new Palestinian government should be given a chance.

Can the biology professor handle the pressure? On the plus side, Palestinians say that Shabir is liked and respected by Abbas and Haniyeh. He has a scientist's impartiality, and he a slight West Virginian accent. But the biologist's success will ultimately depend on how well he can convince the Bush Administration that his future Palestinian cabinet will not be dominated by Hamas. And those are skills you don't learn under the microscope.