Abbas declares he will call early elections

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said Saturday that he has decided to call early elections after the breakdown of national unity talks with Hamas. Abbas, who was speaking at an emergency meeting of the PLO executive committee, did not say when the vote would take place. But aides said the election could be held as early as March. The committee recommended that Abbas dismiss the Hamas-led cabinet and call early elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council and the PA presidency. As the meeting was under way, hundreds of PA security officers and Fatah gunmen went on a rampage in several locations in the Gaza Strip, demanding unpaid salaries and calling for the government to be replaced. The protesters exchanged gunfire with guards stationed outside the PLC offices in Gaza City. Two people were wounded. Palestinian journalists covering the demonstration were severely beaten by the protesters, who also smashed windows and furniture. One journalist, Zuhair Dawlah, said he was beaten "in all parts of the body" by several officers who also confiscated his cellular phone. The riots later spread to Khan Yunis and Rafah, where hundreds of officers blocked main roads with burning tires and shot into the air. "We only want our salaries," said policeman Ayman Hamideh. "Our protests are not related to the tensions between Hamas and Fatah. We are approaching the Id al-Adha [the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice] and we can't afford to buy our children clothes and toys." Hamas leaders said Abbas and his Fatah party were behind the protests, which they described as an attempt to overthrow the PA government. "These demonstrators don't represent all the Palestinian civil servants," said Ahmed Bahar, deputy speaker of the PLC. "This is just a small group of thugs who are trying to spread chaos and intimidate the people." He accused the protesters of shooting at the PLC office and threatening the lives of guards, employees and legislators. Hamas legislator Ismail Ashkar held Abbas responsible for the attack, noting that this was not the first assault of its kind on the PLC. "Abbas is the commander-in-chief and he's responsible for the actions of his security forces," he said. "Abbas and all those around him who are trying to bring down the Hamas government are responsible for the growing state of anarchy and lawlessness." Ashkar also accused former PA security minister Muhammad Dahlan of leading a group of Fatah activists who were trying to stage a coup. "He is exploiting the plight of the unpaid civil servants to trigger civil war," Ashkar said. "He and his friends are exploiting the naivete of many security officers to settle personal scores and spread confusion." Another Hamas legislator, Yehya Musa, said the latest protests were part of a well-planned scheme designed to bring down the government. "Ever since Hamas won the election [in January], we have faced repeated attempts to overthrow the democratically elected government," he said. "Those who have been robbing the Palestinians for many years are trying to come back to power." PLO officials told The Jerusalem Post that Abbas would deliver an "important speech" later this week in which he would call for early elections. "The PLO executive committee today urged President Abbas to use his powers to call early parliamentary and presidential elections," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the executive committee. "The president will announce his final decision within five days." Abed Rabbo said the committee also decided to send letters to several relevant countries informing them that the PLO, in its capacity as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinians, was ready to resume negotiations with Israel under international auspices. "The internal crisis must not hinder the peace process," he said. "We want all the international parties to know that the PLO is the political address for solving the conflict." Hamas representative Khalil Hayeh said the executive committee's recommendation to hold early elections marked the "real beginning of a coup against the democratic choice of the Palestinians." Ahmed Yussef, an adviser to PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, dismissed the recommendation as "meaningless," saying the members of the PLO committee "did not even represent themselves."•