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Hamas leaders on Thursday condemned Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's decision to hold early parliamentary and presidential elections and vowed to foil the vote.
They also accused Abbas of conspiring with Israel to assassinate Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip.
Abbas has won the backing of the PLO Central Council, whose members supported the call for early elections and demanded that Hamas give up control of the Gaza Strip.
The council, one of three key decision-making bodies of the PLO, met in Ramallah over the past two days to discuss the latest developments surrounding Hamas's takeover of the Strip.
Addressing the gathering on Wednesday, Abbas attacked Hamas and said he did not need permission from Syria-based Hamas leader "or his like" to hold elections. Abbas also said Hamas's leaders were "digging their graves with their own hands."
Abbas's remarks set off a wave of rumors according to which Israel was planning to launch a massive military operation in the Gaza Strip to crush Hamas and eliminate its top leaders.
"Mahmoud Abbas is no longer qualified to lead the Palestinian people," said Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar. "By issuing death threats against his own people, he has lost his credibility among the Palestinians."
Speaking to reporters in Gaza City, Zahar, who served as foreign minister in the Hamas-led unity government, accused Abbas of conspiring with Israel to kill Hamas leaders. "We all know that Abbas does not have the power to carry out his threats when he talks about digging graves," he said. "So the question is: Who's going to dig the graves for Hamas on his behalf?"
Zahar also accused Abbas of rallying the international community against Hamas and of serving US interests in the region. "Abbas is inciting the enemy to attack the Gaza Strip," he said. "He has specifically asked Israel to invade the Gaza Strip. But Israel knows that it will pay a heavy price for such an adventure and that's why the Israeli's haven't fulfilled Abbas's demand."
Calling on Abbas to step down, the Hamas leader asked: "What kind of a president is this who calls on the enemy to attack his own people? How can he remain in his job after he has asked the Americans to occupy the Gaza Strip when their forces are being defeated in Afghanistan and Iraq? Abbas is also trying to starve his people by closing the Rafah border crossing. Where in the world is there a president who seeks to starve his people and increase their suffering?"
Zahar criticized Abbas for his decision to disarm Fatah militiamen in the West Bank and accused him of resuming security coordination with Israel against the "Palestinian resistance factions."
He said Hamas would soon reveal many documents that were seized in the headquarters of Fatah-controlled PA security forces in the Gaza Strip that proved these services were spying on Islamic organizations throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
Zahar said his movement would work to thwart early elections.
"These elections are aimed at bypassing the legitimate institutions of the Palestinians," he said. "They will not resolve the crisis; on the contrary, they will only aggravate the problem."
He said Hamas was convinced that Abbas was planning to steal the vote. "Why is he [Abbas] assuming that the results of the new elections will be different from the last ones in January 2006?" Zahar asked. "Most probably it's because he's planning to forge the results. In the West Bank, the results will be 100% forged."
Nabil Amr, a top adviser to Abbas, said such charges "belonged in the garbage bin." He said the PA leadership has decided to ignore all statements made by Hamas leaders. "Zahar's statements reflect Hamas's growing frustration and depression," he said. "Hamas has clearly run out of ammunition and the only thing they are doing now is issuing derogatory statements. But we have decided to ignore them completely."
Sources close to Hamas said the movement was considering outlawing Fatah in the Gaza Strip. They said the move would come in response to Abbas's decision to outlaw Hamas's armed wing in the West Bank.
According to the sources, dozens of Fatah members have been arrested by Hamas militiamen in the Gaza Strip over the past month in a clear attempt to prevent it from regaining its strength.