Hamas is planning to declare one of its top officials as interim president of the Palestinian Authority after Mahmoud Abbas's term in office expires in January 2009, Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip said Sunday.
The officials told The Jerusalem Post that Hamas would not recognize Abbas as president of the PA after that date. "We will remove his pictures from all the public institutions," said one official. "Until now, our policy has been not to challenge Abbas's legitimacy as the elected leader of the Palestinian Authority."
But, the Hamas official warned, his movement was determined to see Abbas step down in January. "If he wants to seek another term in office, he should run in new elections. By announcing that he will stay in power for another year, Abbas is acting in violation of the Palestinian Basic Law."
Hamas insists that Abbas's term expires in January 2009, while the PA president points to 2010. Abbas, who was elected for four years in January 2005, argues that the Palestinian Legislative Council [PLC] amended an election law that same year so as to call for holding parliamentary and presidential elections together. The current Hamas-dominated parliament was elected in January 2006.
Earlier this year, the PA-controlled Ministry of Justice in Ramallah decided that Abbas's term would be extended until January 25, 2010, to coincide with the end of the term of the PLC.
Dismissing the announcement as a "flagrant violation of the Palestinian Basic Law," Hamas said the purported amendment of the election law was itself illegal. Hamas spokesmen explained that according to the Basic Law, the PA president's term cannot be extended because it is limited to four years.
According to a senior Hamas official, his movement is planning to name Ahmed Bahr, the acting speaker of the PLC, as interim president next January. "The Palestinian law calls for the speaker of the parliament to serve as interim president until new elections are held," he said. "When Yasser Arafat died, the former speaker of the parliament, Rouhi Fattouh, took over for two months."
Bahr, who is one of the top leaders of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, said Sunday he was prepared to serve as acting PA president in January. "Abbas would not be able to remain in office after January," he said. "If he wants, he can run in the new elections. But in the meantime, I will be filling in for him."
Bahr warned Abbas against the "serious repercussions" of his decision to stay in office beyond January. "If he insists on violating the law, he will consolidate the state of schism in the Palestinian arena," he cautioned. "He has no right to steal the post of president against the will of the people."
Bahr said he did not rule out the possibility that Abbas, with the help of Israel, would wage a major offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in January. He added that even if some Arab countries continued to deal with Abbas as president of the PA after January 2009, Hamas would not accept him.
PA officials in Ramallah scoffed at Bahr's remarks, saying he was not even the speaker of the PLC. "Bahr forgot that he's only the acting speaker of the parliament and that the speaker is Abdel Aziz Dweik [who is currently in Israeli jail]," said one official. "In any case, Bahr represents a movement that has trampled the law under its foot."
Another PA official told the Post that Abbas has formed a special panel of legal experts to find a way to allow him to extend his term beyond January 2009. "The president has no intention to step down in January," he said. "The law allows him to stay for another year."
The row over Abbas's tenure is expected to be at the top of the agenda in the upcoming talks between the various Palestinian factions in Cairo. All the Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah, have agreed to hold "national dialogue" talks in the Egyptian capital early next month. The talks are primarily aimed at ending the ongoing Hamas-Fatah dispute and ending Hamas's exclusive rule in the Gaza Strip.
The Egyptians are hoping to solve the crisis over Abbas's term before the end of the year so as to avoid a further deterioration in the Hamas-Fatah power struggle.
PA officials said President Hosni Mubarak supported Abbas's stance and
was trying to persuade Hamas not to challenge the PA president in January. Abbas has also sought the backing of the Arab League for his plan to remain in power for an additional year.
The Egyptians are also hoping to convince Hamas to accept a proposal to deploy Arab troops in the Gaza Strip and to form a new Palestinian government that would be dominated by independent figures. Both ideas have thus far been totally rejected by Hamas, which also remains strongly opposed to Abbas's efforts to extend his term by another year.