Abbas calls for early vote

RAMALLAH (AP) — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday announced new presidential and parliament elections to end an increasingly violent standoff with Hamas — a huge gamble that could strengthen the Islamists, drive his people into civil war and further put off peace talks with Israel.

Hamas accused Abbas of trying to topple its government in an illegal manoeuvre, vowed elections would not be held and urged its supporters to take to the streets in protest.

“This is a real coup,” said Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader.

Later Saturday, in Gaza, thousands of Hamas supporters marched in protest and 18 Palestinians were wounded in clashes between the two political camps.

Hamas’ landslide victory in January parliamentary elections split the Palestinian leadership into two camps: One, led by Abbas, who seeks peace with Israel, the other, led by Hamas. The infighting has often degenerated into convulsions of violence, and this week, tensions hit their highest peak in years. Abbas attempted to end the power struggle by bringing Hamas into a more moderate coalition with his Fateh Party, but the Islamic group wasn’t willing to pay the price he demanded — recognising Israel and renouncing violence.

Abbas’ dramatic announcement to end Hamas’ rule after just 11 months prompted aides and supporters to jump up from their seats in joy. Across the West Bank and Gaza, streets were largely deserted during his 90-minute off-the-cuff address, peppered with harsh criticism of Hamas.

“We have a crisis. We have an authority with two heads. So what do we do? Bullets or ballots?” asked Saeb Erekat, a key Abbas aide. “Abu Mazen said ballots,” he said, using Abbas’ nickname.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged the international community to support Abbas, while US State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said it’s “an issue for the Palestinian people to decide through a peaceful political process”. Russia asked the Palestinians to try to maintain unity.

Abbas said a national unity government was still the best option for the Palestinians, but that he had despaired of persuading Hamas to enter into a coalition with Fateh. The Hamas government has drawn crushing international sanctions over its anti-Israel stand, but has refused to recognise Israel, the West’s condition for resuming aid.

“I… decided to call for early presidential and parliamentary elections,” Abbas said from his West Bank headquarters, after outlining months of failed coalition talks. “Let us return to the people, to hear their word, and let them be the judge.” His aides said they expected the vote to be held by the summer. In coming days, Abbas is to meet with the Central Election Commission to hear how much time it will need to prepare. Once he issues a decree calling for elections, the balloting must take place within three months.

In an immediate step towards elections, Abbas announced he has appointed new Fateh leaders, but his office did not release names. Fateh officials said the party’s younger leaders, who had long clamoured for a role in decision making, would now be given a chance. Fateh’s Old Guard had refused to step aside, a key reason the movement remained in disarray after its election defeat.

Abbas also said he has revived the Palestine Liberation Organisation negotiating department, signalling he would pursue peace talks with Israel despite the political turmoil.

However, his decision to call elections is fraught with risks.

It immediately hardened the lines between the rival camps, at a time when factional fighting threatens to escalate into civil war. In recent days, Fateh-allied security forces and Hamas fighters clashed in the streets, and Hamas accused an Abbas ally of trying to kill its prime minister.

Fateh and Hamas supporters traded fire and hurled stones at each other in towns across the Gaza Strip after Abbas’ announcement. Eighteen people were wounded, including seven who were shot, according to reports from hospital officials and Hamas. The confrontations involved just a smaller number of the tens of thousands who rallied across Gaza in support for their side.

In his speech, Abbas harshly attacked Hamas, saying it was ignoring reality. At one point, he warned Hamas not to try to “terrorise” him by claiming its rule was God’s will.

Hamas leaders said the confrontational tone of the speech made it clear Abbas was no longer a partner. “Abu Mazen is not part of the solution anymore. He is part of the problem now,” said Ahmed Yousef, senior adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.

Yousef said Hamas would try to block the election by all means. “We will challenge him everywhere,” he said.

Elections could be stripped of legitimacy if Hamas and other political factions boycott it. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a smaller PLO faction that had participated in parliament elections in January, said it rejected Abbas’ call for early elections. Abbas, 71, was elected president in 2005. If he does not run again — he has said he would not seek another four-year term — Palestinian moderates would not have a strong candidate.

Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi is seen as an Abbas’ most likely heir, but remains in an Israeli jail.

Gaza strongman Mohammad Dahlan could also put in a bid, but is not well liked in the West Bank. Hamas, if it decided to participate, could field Haniyeh, according to polls the most popular politician after Abbas.

In the parliament contest, polls indicate Fateh and Hamas are running neck-and-neck.

During times of political turmoil, any efforts to resume peace talks with Israel would likely be frozen. In recent weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he was willing to give up large parts of the West Bank in a peace deal, and that he was ready to talk peace. Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said that while Abbas’ decision is an internal Palestinian issue in which Israel is not involved, Olmert “respects Abu Mazen and hopes that he will have the capability to assert his leadership over the Palestinian people, and to bring about a government that will comply with the international community’s principles.”

In Damascus, leaders of Palestinian organisations exiled in Syria lashed out Saturday against Abbas’ call for early elections, saying such a move was illegal.

“We reject the holding of early legislative elections in the absence of any real reasons justifying such a move, which would be illegal, and without any basis in the national Palestinian consensus,” said a statement read at a press conference by a member of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

In their statement, the groups stated that “democratic and honest” elections had already taken place, and that now was the time for “a government of national unity and the pursuit of dialogue”.

Among those at the press conference were exiled Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mishaal, Islamic Jihad secretary general Ramadan Shalah, Ahmad Jibril, secretary general of the PFLP-General Command and exiled Fateh leader Farouq Kaddoumi who lives in exile in Tunisia.

The statement condemned a string of rival attacks in recent days, including an attack on the convoy of the Palestinian prime minister.

“These dangerous acts are meant to sow sedition and plunge the Palestinians into an internal conflict that Israel would like to see,” it stated, calling for an independent probe into the Haniyeh incident.

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