Fatah and Hamas have unveiled a government of national consensus that will pave the way for elections for a new Palestinian president and parliament.
The government of 17 politically-independent members, agreed on Monday, is already being put to the test, as Israel announced it would not negotiate any peace deal with it and would push punitive measures.
The US state department however said “based on what we know”, it would work with the new administration and continue to fund Palestinian agencies.
The announcement came after the passing of a five-week deadline that followed a reconciliation agreement on April 23. The new Palestinian government was agreed after arguments over who would take certain portfolios, and what would happen to Hamas-affiliated security forces.
The two sides, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and the Hamas-led government in Gaza, agreed to keep nine ministers, including the prime minister, Rami al-Hamdallah, in their original positions.
Six cabinet members will manage two ministries, just like Hamdallah, who also serves as interior minister. The official task of this government will be to push for re-building the Gaza Strip, and to pave the way for elections in 2015.
In a pre-recorded message that aired on Palestine TV, Abbas said the new government was transitional, and that negotiations with Israel would remain in the hands of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. “This government, like its predecessors, will abide by all previously signed agreements and the PLO’s political agenda,” he said.
The PLO is the highest representative body for Palestinians worldwide. The PA was created for a provisional period to manage the territories Israel withdrew from in accordance with the Oslo Accords. Al Jazeera
Bowe Bergdahl release: Email exchange reveals extent of US failure in Afghan war
‘The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at,’ wrote Sergeant Bergdahl in an email later published by Rolling Stone magazine
It is a bitter indictment of an army in trouble. It was written by the American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in his last email to his parents sent just before he walked off his base in eastern Afghanistan on 30 June 2009.
Within hours, he was picked by the Taliban who held him for five years until his exchange for five senior Taliban leaders held in the US prison at Guantanamo Bay.
“The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at,” wrote Sergeant Bergdahl in an email later published by Rolling Stone magazine. “It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs [sergeants] are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.”
Sgt Bergdahl had joined the army when it was short of soldiers to send to Afghanistan as part of the “surge” in the number of combat brigades there. With too few men, it had started to issue “waivers” to recruits facing felony charges or drugs problems who previously would have been turned down for the army. For Sgt Bergdahl, a crack shot, well-educated and with a romantic vision of what professional soldiering involved, disillusionment set in fast.
His company was understrength and demoralised. He complained that three good sergeants had been forced to move to another company and “one of the biggest shit bags is being put in charge of the team”. The commander of his battalion was a “conceited old fool” and other officers were as bad: “In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown-nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do whatever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank.”
Sgt Bergdahl had taken seriously the counter-insurgency strategy supposedly aimed at winning the “hearts and minds” of Afghans. Instead, he found that US soldiers regarded Afghans with aggressive contempt: “I am sorry for everything here. These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.”
He spoke of seeing an Afghan child run over by an American heavy-armoured truck, an event which his parents believe may have led him to leave his base. His father responded to his last message with an email in which the subject line was titled: “Obey Your Conscience.”
The life stories of the six men – five Afghans and one American – exchanged this weekend shows how quickly the mood of armies in Afghanistan can switch from full confidence in victory to frustration and defeat. In the summer of 2001 the Taliban rightly believed they were close to taking over the whole of Afghanistan as their enemies were penned into the mountains of the north-east.
But 9/11 changed all that and by November the Americans were cock-a-hoop that they had won an easy success. Eight years later Sgt Bergdahl’s reasons for going Awol illustrate how far Afghanistan turned into a demoralising and unwinnable war for the US.
The Taliban had also seen hopes of victory turn sour in a much shorter period. Mullah Mohammed Fazl, also known as Mullah Fazel Mazloom, was the leader of 10,000 Taliban fighters held responsible for massacres of Hazara and Tajiks in northern Afghanistan.
He surrendered to the opposition Northern Alliance in 2001. With him was the governor of Balkh province, Mullah Norullah Noori. They were taken to the battleship USS Bataan and then to Guantanamo.
Ever since exploratory talks started between the US and the Taliban, the first demand of the latter was for these two men to be released. Other prisoners include Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa who was a founding member of the Taliban in 1994. In these early days after the fall of the Taliban, an over-confident US saw no reason why former Taliban leaders should be conciliated. Among those senior Taliban security official reported to have vainly reached out to the Americans are the two remaining detainees.
Who could have imagined at the end of 2001 that 13 years later the US would be exchanging prisoners with the Taliban? For the US, getting back their only prisoner detaches them further from Afghanistan, the handover of the five leaders is a sign of their legitimacy and strength.
Polls have opened in Syria’s presidential election, with the incumbent Bashar al-Assad widely expected to win.
Voting is only taking place in government-controlled territories, meaning those displaced by fighting or living in rebel-held areas, will not be able to take part.
The opposition has dismissed the vote as a “farce” that will prolong the country’s three-year war. The vote excludes regime opponents from running.
Tuesday’s controversial vote is Syria’s first election in nearly 50 years, with Assad and his father Hafez renewing their mandates in successive referendums.
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Lebanon’s Al Masnaa border crossing on Tuesday, said: “The displaced Syrians who are in Lebanon, if they go in today [to Syria] they will risk losing their status as refugees in Lebanon.
“The opposition says this is a farce, they don’t recognise these elections. They say there is no way it could be legitimate while civil war is raging in the country, while it’s being organised by the same president they want to overthrow.
“If you talk to regular Syrians, many of them have come to the conclusion, whether they support Assad or oppose him, he has prevailed in the last three years, and know he is going to win the seven-year term which is going to further complicate the process to form a new transitional government away from the current regime.”
Assad faces two virtually unknown competitors – Maher al-Hajjad and Hassan al-Nuri.
Nuri, who studied in the US and speaks English, told AFP news agency he expected to come second after Assad.
Both he and Hajjar have only lightly criticised Assad’s rule, for fear of being linked to an opposition that has been branded “terrorist” by the regime. The two men are, instead, focusing on corruption and economic policy.
The vote takes place as the war continues, with the air force bombarding rebel areas in Aleppo and fierce fighting in Hama, Damascus, Idlib and Daraa.
More than 15 million Syrians will be able to cast their vote in 11,000 ballot boxes distributed in more than 9,000 offices, which will be open from 7am to 7pm local time.
“They [Syrians] feel things are being complicated, but they are adamant they have to deal with this reality,” Al Jazeera’s Roula Amin said.
“That is why these people crossing into Syria vote feel they arre doing it only to manage their daily lives, meaning they don’t want to lose their chance to go back to Syria, or maybe lose their passport, or having their family pay a price if they don’t vote.”
Observers from countries allied to the regime – North Korea, Iran and Russia – are supervising the vote, while a security plan has reportedly been put in place in Syrian cities to prevent possible attacks against voters and polling stations.
Syria’s divided rebels, like their Western and Arab backers, are powerless as Assad prepares to renew his grip on power, after a string of advances on the ground, mainly in Homs and near the Lebanese border.
Opposition activists have branded the vote a “blood election”, while the country reels from a war that has killed more than 162,000 people.
For some time, rumours have swirled that polling stations in Damascus would be targeted by rebels positioned in the nearby countryside.
The Assad regime pulled off a coup last week when thousands of expatriates and refugees living abroad turned out for an early vote in the embassies of their host countries.
More than 95 percent of those registered cast their ballots, the state news agency SANA said.
However, Syrians who entered countries illegally were not allowed to take part and only 200,000 of about three million refugees were on electoral lists abroad.
The Assads have ruled Syria with for more than 40 years.
All dissent has been crushed throughout that time, with Assad’s father Hafez crushing a Muslim Brotherhood-led rebellion in Hama in the 1980s, and tens of thousands of people still languishing in jails. Al Jazeera