The IDF's anti-Hamas operation in the Gaza Strip has diverted attention from the row over Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's term in office, which expires on Friday.
Abbas's aides said he has no plans to step down in the near future, claiming that the PA's Basic Law allows him to stay in power for another year.
Abbas was elected in January 2005 to a four-year term.
Hamas officials said that as of Friday they would not recognize Abbas's status as president of the PA.
But they also made it clear that they would not demand his resignation for now "because of the war" in the Gaza Strip.
"This is not the time to talk about such matters," said one Abbas aide. "President Abbas was elected by a majority of the people, and as such he's the legitimate leader. He represents all the Palestinians and not only those living in the West Bank."
PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad told reporters on Thursday that the law calls for holding presidential and legislative elections simultaneously. And since the legislative elections are due to be held in January 2010, Abbas is entitled to stay in office for an additional year, he explained.
However, Hamas and some Palestinian legal experts have openly challenged Abbas's right to remain in power after the expiration of his term.
"Thursday was Abbas's last day in office," said Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon. "Our position on this issue is clear: Abbas's term in office has expired."
Mushir al-Masri, a spokesman for Hamas in the Gaza Strip, said Abbas would lose credibility because of his refusal to step down. "He doesn't have the right to speak on behalf of the people," he said. "He's in power only because the Israelis and the Americans want him to stay."
According to the Palestinian constitution, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council is supposed to serve as acting PA president for a period of 60 days, after which presidential elections are to be held.
The current speaker of the Hamas-dominated PLC, Abdel Aziz Dweik, is serving a 36-month sentence in Israel for membership in a terrorist organization. His deputy, Ahmed Bahar, also a senior Hamas official, is based in the Gaza Strip.
Some Hamas spokesmen said in recent weeks that one of the two men would become acting PA president on January 9. But the fighting in Gaza appears to have spoiled Hamas's plans and Abbas loyalists said that this was not the appropriate time to discuss the issue of his term in office.
Fatah legislator Hatem Abdel Qader defended Abbas's decision to stay in power, saying the current circumstances don't allow an election to be held. He said the war in the Gaza Strip should serve as an incentive for Fatah and Hamas to resume talks on achieving unity.
"These are tough times for all Palestinians," said Jihad Abu Zneid, another Fatah legislator. "Anyone who raises such issues now is acting against the interests of the Palestinians."
She said it was "disgraceful" that some people in Fatah and Hamas were talking about this issue while the IDF offensive was underway. Israel, she said, "has always been promoting schism among the Palestinians, because it does not want them to be united."
Adli Sadek, the former PLO ambassador to Romania, urged Fatah and Hamas to put aside their differences and to work toward restoring "national unity." He too said that this was not the time to talk about elections or the "trivial" issue of who's in power.
Mustapha Barghouti, a former presidential candidate, said it was "irrational that Hamas and Fatah were continuing to fight each other while our people are being massacred."
"This is not the right time and place to talk about Abbas's presidency. It doesn't really matter who leads the Palestinians. It's much more important that we are reunited," Barghouti said.
Some Palestinians said they were hoping that the Israeli military offensive would prompt Fatah and Hamas to join forces and set aside their differences, especially with regards to the status of Abbas.
But the military operation seems to have escalated tensions between the two parties, particularly following accusations by Hamas that Abbas and Fatah were "colluding" with Israel. Many Hamas representatives are convinced that Israel's undeclared goal is to overthrow the Hamas government so as to pave the way for the return of Abbas's loyalists to power in the Gaza Strip.
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