200,000 Palestinians attend 21st anniversary celebration of Hamas founding in the Gaza Strip.
By KHALED ABU TOAMEH
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas plans to unilaterally extend his term in office by a year when it expires on January 9, PA officials in Ramallah said Sunday.
The officials told The Jerusalem Post that Abbas has won the backing of the Arab League for his decision, noting that the Arab foreign ministers who met in Cairo recently had urged the PA president to remain in power until an agreement is reached with Hamas on holding new elections.
Moreover, they pointed out that veteran PLO leaders who met in Ramallah recently had also expressed support for Abbas's plan. They added that the US and most of the EU countries had also promised to back Abbas.
Hamas, however, reiterated on Sunday that it would not recognize Abbas as president after his four-year term expires next month. The movement said it would name the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Abdel Aziz Dweik of Hamas, as acting PA president until elections to be held within 60 days.
Hamas legislator and spokesman Salah Bardaweel announced that Dweik, who has been in Israeli prison since the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit more than two years ago, would serve as "interim president" after January 9.
He noted that the PA Basic Law called for the speaker of the parliament to serve as acting president of the PA for 60 days after the president's term expires or if he steps down or dies.
Bardaweel said the Arab League's support for Abbas was a mere recommendation and did not carry any weight.
"President Abbas will stay in power after January 9 because this is the will of the Arabs and the Palestinians," a top PA official said. "Under the current circumstances, it's impossible to hold a free election because of the Hamas coup in the Gaza Strip."
Another PA official claimed that the next presidential elections should be held together with the parliamentary elections, which are due to take place in January 2010. "Until then, President Abbas will remain in power to avoid a vacuum in the leadership," he said. "The Palestinian cause is passing through a dangerous phase that requires that he remain in power for as long as possible."
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh mocked Abbas's efforts to renew his term in office and condemned the Arab League for recommending that he stay in power.
Addressing hundreds of thousands of Hamas supporters on the 21st anniversary of the movement's founding, Haniyeh also mocked the recent decision of the PLO Central Council to name Abbas "president of the State of Palestine."
"Where is the state they are talking about?" he asked. "Abbas will lose his legitimacy as president of the Palestinian Authority after January 9, regardless of whether he has the backing of Arab or non-Arab parties. The decision to appoint Abbas as president of the state of Palestine does not mean anything, because the Palestinian Basic Law is the only means to solve this issue."
Fahmi Za'arir, a prominent Fatah spokesman, dismissed Haniyeh's remarks as "meaningless."
He said that January 9 would be another normal working day for Abbas. "President Abbas was elected by the people in a free election," he said. "Fatah is nevertheless prepared to immediately hold presidential and legislative elections."
A defiant Haniyeh stressed that Hamas was not afraid of elections, adding that the movement remained as strong as ever despite Israeli and American attempts to bring it down.
"Hamas is very strong and will become stronger despite the blockade because its power stems from Allah," he said. "This large crowd is the response to [US President George W.] Bush, [President-elect Barak] Obama and those who are helping them that they won't prevail."
Journalists in the Gaza Strip estimated the number of participants in the Hamas rally at 200,000. They said it was one of the largest shows of support for the movement and an indication that Hamas remained the most popular group in the Gaza Strip.
The PA banned Hamas from holding similar rallies in the West Bank. Several Hamas figures in the West Bank were summoned to interrogation by the PA security forces, who warned them against celebrating the Hamas anniversary in public.
Haniyeh launched a scathing attack on the PA security forces in the West Bank and accused them of carrying out orders from US security coordinator Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton in their fight against Hamas. He added that Hamas was interested in conducting a dialogue with Fatah to solve the crisis. But, he said, the US has "vetoed" any attempt by Fatah to achieve reconciliation with Hamas.
Haniyeh said Hamas was prepared to participate in reconciliation talks with Fatah if the PA released all Hamas prisoners in the West Bank.
The Hamas leader also announced a series of measures to help needy families and boost the economy in the Gaza Strip. The measures include paying $100 to more than 3,000 university student, raising the salaries of teachers by 5 percent, providing financial aid to over 10,000 families and building an opthamology hospital.
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