As the Hamas party formally took power with the swearing-in of its 24-member cabinet on Wednesday evening, the US government banned its diplomats from having any contact with the Hamas-led cabinet as it was sworn in by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. 

In a directive distributed to diplomats and other officials by email, the American government instructed them not to have contacts with Hamas-appointed government ministers, whether they are members of the group or not, according to American officials. The no-contact policy, which took effect just before 6 p.m. Jerusalem time, applies equally of to those who work for the ministers but are not Hamas members, such as independents and technocrats in the new government. The United States hopes to pressure Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce its armed struggle. Hamas officials have called on the United States to reconsider its policy of "collective punishment" of the Palestinian people for their democratic choice. The group’s leaders have also said that Israel has not yet recognized Palestinian rights nor abided by peace accords that should have afforded Palestinians a state.

The order took effect in Ramallah at 6pm (1600 GMT), when Hamas formally took power with the swearing-in of its 24-member cabinet.

The ceremony came the day after a general election in Israel that looks set to bring a Kadima-led coalition to power.  The party, founded at the end of last year by Ariel Sharon, has vowed to unilaterally withdraw from parts of the West Bank if an agreement cannot be reached with the Palestinians.

After the win, the Kadima leader, Ehud Olmert, reiterated his intention to proceed with that plan. Israeli officials have ruled out new talks unless Hamas changes its ways.

US diplomats would still be allowed to contact Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his personal staff, but America is trying to either sideline Hamas or force it to recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by peace accords.

The group, which won Palestinian elections in January, is considered a terrorist organization by the US.

Hamas Parliament Member Mushir Masri said the group would not abandon its armed struggle if Olmert pursued his plan to unilaterally draw the Israeli borders with the West Bank.

He accused the Kadima leader of trying to gain international approval for his one-sided moves by presenting his plan as a fallback to failed negotiations.

"I think proposing negotiations along with the unilateral plan is only to make the plan pass and market it to the world," Masri told the Associated Press.

Ismail Haniyeh, the new Palestinian Prime Minister, said yesterday that unilateral moves by Israel "definitely won’t be accepted by the Palestinian people or the Palestinian government".