"When the issue of the siege is on one side, and my being prime minister is on the other, let the siege be lifted to end the suffering of the Palestinian people," Haniya said, referring to the international aid boycott that has devastated the Palestinian economy.

 

His statements appeared to be another indication that Hamas and the rival Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, were inching closer to a national unity government made up of independent experts.

 

The West and Israel have withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and tax revenues since Hamas took power in March in an effort to pressure the ruling group to moderate its anti-Israel ideology.

The sanctions have prevented Hamas from paying a large portion of the salaries owed to 165,000 government employees, causing widespread hardship in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The United States, has said it will not lift sanctions unless Hamas recognises Israel, renounces violence and accepts past peace deals, something Hamas has so far refused to do.

The programme of the proposed new unity government is vague on the key issue of recognizing Israel, calling for a Palestinian state on only the lands captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

Political rivalry

 

On Thursday, Abbas spoke by phone to his main political rival, Khaled Mashaal, Hamas' supreme leader - their first conversation in months.

 

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, said their discussion was proof that the two are now in agreement on the shape of the new government.

However, weeks of up-and-down negotiations have repeatedly failed to yield results, and a fresh breakdown in talks appeared possible.