In a move that sparked fierce gun battles between Hamas and Fatah, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas announced Saturday that he had decided to call early parliamentary and presidential elections "as soon as possible."
Abbas did not set a date for holding the vote, saying he wanted to keep the door open for the formation of a Palestinian unity government in the future.
Hamas immediately dismissed Abbas's announcement as "unconstitutional," saying it was tantamount to staging a coup against the Hamas-led government.
Following Abbas's an-nouncement, which drew thunderous applause from the audience, battles erutped between Hamas and Fatah militiamen, especially in Khan Yunis and Rafah, where some 20 people were wounded.
Thousands of Fatah supporters and gunmen took to the streets in various locations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to express their backing for Abbas, while Hamas called a general strike Sunday in protest.
Some Fatah leaders here expressed disappointment with Abbas for not taking "dramatic measures" such as the dismissal of the Hamas-led government and the establishment of an emergency cabinet.
"President Abbas did not come up with anything new," said one Fatah operative. "He has been threatening to call early elections for the past five months. I don't believe the current crisis can continue for another six or seven months. More threats are not going to work."
Abbas aides told The Jerusalem Post that, in any case, they did not expect the elections to take place before mid-2007. "We need a lot of time to prepare for the elections," said PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. "There are several legal and technical procedures involved."
In a major policy speech that was boycotted by members of the Hamas-led government, Abbas told hundreds of supporters: "I have decided to call early parliamentary and presidential elections as soon as possible to resolve the crisis that has plagued our cause. Nothing will prevent us from returning to the people to get rid of this miserable situation."
Contrary to expectations, Abbas refrained from dismissing the Hamas-led government, although he hinted that he may consider such a move in the future. "I signed the presidential decree to form the government and it's possible that I will sign a similar decree to fire it whenever I want," he said.
In his 90-minute speech, Abbas launched a scathing attack on Hamas, holding the Islamic movement's leaders responsible for the failure of the unity government talks and for the continuation of the international sanctions on the Palestinians. Accusing Hamas of practicing "unacceptable terror" against its political foes, Abbas said: "We are all religious and many of us have been praying and fasting long before any of them [Hamas] were born."
Referring to the breakdown of the unity government talks with Hamas, he explained: "I did not ask Fatah, Hamas or Islamic Jihad to recognize Israel. I only asked the government to do something to lift the international sanctions. No one is asking any of the factions to make concessions."
Abbas strongly denied allegations by Hamas that members of his Fatah party and Force 17 "presidential guard" were behind the assassination attempt on the life of PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh last Thursday.
"Many people carrying hand-propelled grenades and automatic rifles came to the Rafah terminal to receive Haniyeh upon his return from his tour," Abbas pointed out. "They were supposed to receive him with flowers and greetings, not rifles. This was unrealistic."
Abbas said Hamas supporters fired at Force 17 officers who were stationed at the terminal to protect the prime minister. "It's shameful to say that the presidential guard opened fire," he said, accusing the Hamas supporters of destroying and looting equipment and furniture inside the terminal. "Everyone was prepared to help Haniyeh enter the Gaza Strip in an honorable manner. The Palestinian security forces were supposed to escort him. So where is the conspiracy they are talking about?"
Abbas added that he had entrusted three senior PA officials, including former security minister Muhammad Dahlan, to coordinate with Israel, Egypt and the Europeans Haniyeh's safe return to the Gaza Strip.
"Our goal was to ensure that Haniyeh will leave the Gaza Strip honorably and return in the same manner," he said. "But some complications happened when it was said that he was trying to smuggle money. I want to stress that the Palestinians need money to spend on the people, but we don't want smuggled cash."
Abbas also criticized Palestinian armed groups for continuing to fire rockets at Israel, saying such actions have harmed foreign investments in the Gaza Strip. In addition, he criticized the captors of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, pointing out that more than 500 Palestinians have been killed since the abduction.
Hamas leaders reacted with fury to Abbas's call for early elections, saying it was part of a conspiracy designed to overthrow their democratically elected government.
"The government rejects the attempt to bypass the choice of the Palestinian people," said PA Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar of Hamas. "The people already made their choice nine months ago." Referring to Abbas, he added: "If anyone is tired, he should resign. The Palestinian budget can't afford another election."
Ahmed Bahar, acting speaker of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council, condemned Abbas's call as unconstitutional and illegal. "This decision amounts to a coup attempt against the legitimate government," he said. "President Abbas will bear the full responsibility for the consequences of his actions."
Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan accused Abbas of destroying any chance of resuming negotiations over the formation of a unity government. "Abbas and Fatah have been trying to bring down the government from day one," he said. "Abbas has shut the door to any form of dialogue."
Several Syria-based Palestinian organizations also rejected the call for early elections and urged Abbas to form a commission of inquiry to investigate the attempt on Haniyeh's life. One of Haniyeh's sons was moderately wounded and a bodyguard killed when his convoy came under fire near the Rafah border crossing. Haniyeh's political adviser, Ahmed Youssef, was lightly wounded
In an unprecedented move, Hamas leaders accused Dahlan of masterminding the assassination attempt - an allegation that drew sharp criticism from Abbas and many top Fatah officials. PA officials warned that the charges against Dahlan were actually a call to kill him.
The alleged attempt on Haniyeh's life sparked violent clashes between Hamas and Fatah supporters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The worst clashes took place in Ramallah on Friday, when Fatah gunmen and PA policemen fired at a peaceful Hamas demonstration. At least 34 people were wounded, among them four who were reported in critical condition.
Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, warned that any attempt to harm Dahlan would lead to the killing of Haniyeh, Zahar and Interior Minister Said Siam.â€¢