Following violent protests by Fatah activists over the weekend throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has called off a planned visit to Gaza out of fear for his life, PA officials said on Saturday.
Abbas, under growing pressure to resign following his party's humiliating defeat in last week's parliamentary election, was scheduled to travel from Ramallah to the Gaza Strip for talks with Hamas leaders on the formation of a new cabinet, but decided to cancel the visit for security reasons, one official told The Jerusalem Post
The Fatah demonstrators, who set fire to scores of cars and stormed public institutions, demanded the resignation of Abbas and veteran Fatah leaders, holding them responsible for Hamas's landslide victory.
On Friday night, arsonists torched the car of Burhan Jarar, one of the Fatah officials who ran as an independent in the election. Other candidates said they had received death threats from Fatah militiamen, who accused them of aiding Hamas in its election campaign.
The turmoil in Fatah reached its peak on Friday afternoon when thousands of angry activists went on the rampage in the streets of Gaza City and Khan Yunis, setting fire to dozens of cars and attacking public buildings.
The protesters, who included many gunmen, called for the resignation of the top brass of the Fatah leadership and for allowing young activists a larger say in decision-making. Former minister Muhammad Dahlan, who is also a Fatah leader, joined the demonstrators in demanding that the party's veteran officials be removed and put on trial.
According to local Fatah officials, Dahlan was exploiting the defeat of Fatah to undermine Abbas and project himself as the future leader of the party.
"These protests were organized by Muhammad Dahlan, who wants to replace Abbas as Fatah head," said one official.
The protesters drove by Abbas's residence in Gaza City and called from loudspeakers for all corrupt leaders to step down. They also urged Abbas not to form a coalition with Hamas. Abbas was in Ramallah at the time.
A shootout broke out Friday night between activists from Hamas and Fatah in Khan Yunis, wounding one police officer and one Hamas supporter. The violence erupted when a small group of Hamas supporters shot at Fatah loyalists who were tearing down Hamas election posters.
Earlier in the day, three people were wounded in a clash between Fatah and Hamas, one by gunfire and two by rock throwing. The shooting in Khan Yunis came just hours after an exchange of fire between Hamas gunmen and PA policemen in the same area. A Hamas gunman and two policemen were wounded in the firefight. One of the officers was shot in the head and chest, and later died of his wounds.
On Saturday the protests spread to the West Bank, where thousands of Fatah members took to the streets, chanting slogans against their leaders and demanding their resignations. The demonstrators also warned Fatah against joining a Hamas-led coalition.
In Ramallah, several hundred Fatah activists entered the "presidential" Mukata compound, where they prayed at the grave of Arafat. Outside the compound, some of the gunmen shot in the air and chanted: "We came to you Abu Amar [Arafat's nickname] to forgive us for what happened." Another group of Fath gunmen also stormed the parliamentary building in the city, firing into the air and threatening workers and passersby.
In Nablus, about 2,000 Fatah members marched through the streets, led by dozens of gunmen from the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, who climbed aboard the back of a truck and fired in the air.
"Al Aksa, from Rafah to Jenin, has stopped the cease-fire," one of the gunmen aboard the truck, Nasser Haras, told the crowd. "We are now no longer part of the cease-fire."
In Hebron, about 500 protesters marched through the city center, also calling for the resignation of Fatah's leaders. The Aksa Martyrs Brigades later issued a statement threatening to "liquidate" the Fatah leaders if they changed their minds and joined a Hamas-led cabinet.
An official said Abbas was "extremely disturbed" by the protests, but would eventually meet with Hamas in Gaza.
"I believe that President Abbas will travel to the Gaza Strip to meet with the Hamas leaders," the official said. "The situation at present is very dangerous as some Fatah leaders are trying to topple the regime through violent means."
Former PA National Security Adviser Jibril Rajoub, one of the biggest losers in the election, said Abbas had no plans to quit. "President Abbas won't resign and we will make huge efforts to rebuild Fatah," he said.
Hamas representatives said they were waiting for Abbas to entrust them with forming the new cabinet. According to Palestinian law, the party that obtained the largest number of seats in parliament must present its candidate for the premiership to Abbas, who will ask him to form the new cabinet.
If the appointed prime minister fails to compose his government within 40 days, Abbas must appoint a new prime minister and so on until a government if formed. Hamas officials have publicly invited Fatah and other factions to join a new coalition.
Many Fatah leaders and activists called for establishing a commission of inquiry to look into the reasons behind their party's failure. Several others submitted their resignations from Fatah over the weekend, holding the party's "old guard" leaders responsible for the defeat.
Taysir Nasrallah, a senior Fatah leader from Nablus, blamed former PA chairman Yasser Arafat and his cronies for the Fatah defeat and called for immediate reforms in the party.
"The reason for our defeat is very obvious," he said. "Arafat left behind a legacy of corruption that was the reason behind our defeat. Members of the Fatah central committee and revolutionary council should accept responsibility and resign."
Some Fatah leaders believe they lost the vote because many of their activists chose to run as independents to protest against not being included in the party's official list for the election.
On Saturday, Abbas decided to dismiss six candidates from Fatah because they had defied his instructions by contesting the vote independently.