By Ali Sawafta
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas named British-educated political independent Rami Hamdallah as new prime minister on Sunday, a move that was immediately condemned by Gaza Strip rulers Hamas.
Abbas and the militant Islamist group agreed in principle last month to form a unity government for the divided Palestinian territories, and a Hamas spokesman said Hamdallah's appointment threw that into doubt.
Fawzi Barhoum told Reuters "Abbas should have implemented the reconciliation (deal)" achieved in Cairo last month, rather than name his own independent candidate as prime minister.
The group called Hamdallah's appointment "illegal."
But official Palestinian news agency, WAFA, said that in naming Hamdallah, Abbas, who has sought to end abuse of the Islamist group's activists by security forces in the West Bank, had "stressed his commitment to reconciliation" with Hamas.
A little known figure outside the Palestinian territories, Hamdallah is a professor of linguistics who has been president of An Najah National University in the West Bank's largest city since 1998.
He will replace Western-favored economist Salam Fayyad who quit in April and formally leaves office this month.
"President Abbas has designated Rami Hamdallah to form a new cabinet," the official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity. Palestinian and Israeli media also reported the appointment.
Led by the secular Fatah party, Abbas' Western-backed Palestinian Authority has pursued surveillance, firings, arrests and torture to bar its Islamist rivals from public life in the West Bank, since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip enclave in 2007.
Political attempts to heal the rift have foundered in the past largely on differences over policy toward Israel.
Hamas rejects any recognition of the Jewish state, while Abbas' Fatah party signed an interim deal with Israel in 1993 and is a party to U.S.-brokered efforts to revive peace talks that broke down in a dispute over Jewish settlements in 2010.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has met with little success in efforts to renew peace talks. The Palestinians want a settlement construction freeze while Israel insists talks should be held without preconditions.
Hamdallah also pledged his commitment to Abbas's agenda of returning to the table with a goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, the WAFA agency said.
Under Palestinian law, he has up to six weeks to form a government.
Fayyad, a former World Bank official credited with building Palestinian institutions needed to gain independence from Israel, resigned over an economic crisis caused by cuts in Western funds and Israeli freezes on money transfers.
Fayyad's departure was seen as a major blow to the Palestinians' Western backers.
Media reports have quoted Fayyad as saying he would have stayed on had he thought Kerry's initiative would succeed. A trusted gate keeper of Western aid, Fayyad's absence may renew scrutiny of Palestinian accounts and accusations of corruption.
The United States and parts of Europe reduced funding for the Palestinians late last year in protest at Abbas' winning of de facto United Nations statehood recognition, which Washington objected to as an attempt to bypass direct talks with Israel.
Kerry has promised $4 billion in aid but given few details.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; editing by Patrick Graham)