Newly elected MPs were sworn in simultaneously on Saturday in Gaza and the West Bank, with the session being carried live via video-conference.

The Gaza streets were relatively empty, save for a heavy police presence, with most residents staying indoors and tuning into the parliament session on local radio stations or satellite channels.

Gaza lawmakers, belonging mainly to the Hamas list, meanwhile, were barred by the Israeli government from travelling to the West Bank to attend the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) session.

Israel also divided access to the West Bank into three parts in the morning, to hinder the movement of Palestinian lawmakers from their respective cities to Ram Allah.

Several Gaza lawmakers who were given Israeli permission to travel to the West Bank, such as independent Palestine MP Rawia Shawwa and Independent Christian candidate Hussam Taweel who was supported by Hamas, chose to remain in Gaza none the less in "solidarity" with the MPs who were unable to travel.

Solidarity

Taweel said: "I preferred to stay in Gaza because most of the elected Palestinian members were prevented from going to the West Bank and because of that I was staying in solidarity with them here in Gaza."

"I preferred to stay in Gaza because most of the elected Palestinian members were prevented [By Israel] from going to the West Bank and because of that I was staying in solidarity"

Hussam Taweel,
independent member of parliament

Outside the Rashad al-Shawwa Cultural Centre currently serving as a council building for Gaza's MPs, Palestinians from various walks of life gathered to make their voices heard. Many forced their way into the crowded convention centre, despite attempts by riot police to keep them outside.

The families of prisoners, holding up framed photos of their imprisoned family members, called upon the newly elected MPs to heed their plight and give the issue of Palestinian prisoners priority.

About 7500 Palestinian prisoners are currently serving sentences - most without charges - in Israeli jails.  

High expectations

Before the parliament officially convened, one man, holding a picture of his son, walked towards the podium, shouting at security guards who attempted to escort him away. He was calmed down by Ismail Haniya, the Hamas leader heading the now ruling party's victorious list and in line to be the new prime minister.  

The man shouted: "Nobody understands our plight. I'm here to say to all of these MPs that we take top priority. I'm here to ask how they plan to free our sons and daughters?" 

Some onlookers called for more order, while others said the din only indicated the shape of things to come.

One woman, Um Yousuf Shirafi, who had come to watch her son be sworn in as a MP, said: "It is disorderly and inappropriate for them to just storm the parliament room like this. They should take this outside."

Street opinion

Another woman disagreed.

"I disagree," said Ayisha Hmaid, dressed in traditional Palestinian clothing, and who had travelled from the Jabaliya refugee camp in the north of Gaza to attend. 

"They are asking for their lawful rights and the prisoners issue should top their list of priorities. How do they intend to free them?"

President Abbas emphasised the
need for parties to work together

The conference room was packed - with journalists, legislators, civil society leaders and ordinary Palestinians all jockeying for a ringside glimpse of history in the making.

Nasr Qabalani, 38, and member of the general union of Palestinian women whose husband was killed by Israeli forces during the Intifada, said: "It's my first time seeing the parliament convene. I wanted to partake in this happy day. Some issues, of course, rise to the surface, like that of the prisoners and their needy families. They need to address this right away. 

"I want to meet some of the leaders, and to ask them personally what they plan to do about our rights. Will they act?

"Internally, things have only got worse and we are here to say enough is enough. We want to see them take immediate action."

Qabalani called on Israel and Western nations to respect the choice of the Palestinian people and to give the council a fair chance, while likewise asking Hamas to be flexible.

Israeli measures

Israel announced it will bar Gazan workers, people and goods from entering Israeli territory as early as next week as a punitive measure in response to the Hamas victory, a move that could prove devastating for the already crippled Gaza economy.

"I think the president is a man of dialogue and understanding and if there is any disagreement we will overcome it and we will able to lead a brilliant PLC despite disagreements"

Jamila al-Shanty, 
Hamas MP

Qabalani said: "This is the democratic choice of the Palestinians and we ask everyone to respect it. They have to give the new legislative council a chance. We're in a difficult situation, but we have become accustomed to such difficulties.  

"We hope that the PLC members live up to their promises and not resort to extremism - we have suffered enough and want some good gestures from them.

"We are looking to new horizons. Our reality is very, very difficult. No matter what we say, we have to coordinate, our borders, our security, everything is linked with Israel. We have to find solutions for ourselves - no one can help us, not the Arabs, not the Muslims."  

Despite the commotion and some glitches in transmitting the proceedings live - and a rather lengthy introductory speech by Palestinian National Council (PNC) head Salim Zaanoun - the session went smoothly.

Zaanoun said that despite the travel ban, the Palestinian parliament would remain united, and called for including the several elected members of parliament serving Israeli prison sentences via videoconference as well.

"No one can divide us," he said.

Procedural session

During a 10-minute break for prayers in the course of the lengthy session, two disabled men stood in the corridor holding a banner proclaiming "What about our rights?" They were approached by Haniya, who listened to their concerns.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniya is
tipped to be the new PM

The room erupted in applause and shouts of "God is Great" as Musheer al-Masri, the youngest MP elected to parliament on the Hamas list, was called to the podium along with the oldest serving parliament member, to carry out the day's agenda according to the election by-law traditions. The agenda included taking votes for the new speaker of parliament, Aziz Duweik.

Overall, parliament members were pleased with the manner in which the first session was carried out, despite the travel ban and other economic and political measure taken by Israel and other countries.

For her part, Jamila al-Shanty, a professor at the Islamic University in Gaza and one of six women elected to Hamas's national list, said she was optimistic about the ability of the PLC to function in the face of draconian measures employed by Israel.

"I feel great and I am confident of success. We are an organised people and we will be able to carry through with our work."

Bridging differences

Al-Shanty welcomed the Palestinian president's speech to parliament, which called for the protection of individual and public freedoms, including the freedom of expression and thinking.  

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said: "Modern education, based on the requirements of development, the need to open up to the world, the tenets of free thinking and creativity, and the ethos of resisting chauvinism is the safety valve for raising new generations." 

Al-Shanty added: "I think the president is a man of dialogue and understanding and if there is any disagreement, we will overcome it and we will able to lead a brilliant PLC despite disagreements."

In his speech, Abbas called for a resumption of negotiations with Israel and an end to armed resistance, and reminded all parliament members of "the need to respect all signed agreement".

Haniya told Aljazeera.net after the speech that while there are "differences of opinion on the political front", these differences "can be overcome".