Abbas plans new Palestinian elections

Other News Materials 19 July 2007 11:11 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - Eighteen months after his Fatah movement was trounced at the polls, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday that he will call new legislative elections in a move seen as seeking to further isolate the Islamic militants of Hamas.

Hamas said early elections would be illegal and warned they could lead to new violence.

Abbas' aides said they expected the ballot by the end of this year or early 2008. His announcement came as the U.S. and other international mediators were moving to revive Mideast peace efforts.

In a speech to the Palestine Central Council, Abbas denounced Hamas in the harshest terms, accusing the Islamic movement of staging "a coup" against him in the Gaza Strip and of provoking Israel and Egypt to seal Gaza's borders.

Hamas is "committing capital crimes, bloody crimes against our people every day, every minute, every hour," Abbas said. "There will be no dialogue until they return Gaza to what it was before."

"Even the devil cannot match their lies," he added.

In five days of bloody fighting in mid-June, Hamas militiamen crushed Fatah gunmen and the presidential security force in the Gaza Strip.

Abbas retaliated by dismissing the Hamas-led coalition government formed after the January 2006 elections and created a caretaker government of technocrats and moderates that governs the West Bank but holds little sway in Gaza.

"We will call on the council to decide on early elections," Abbas said. "We won't exclude anybody from having their say in a democratic way."

The council is a policy-making body of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella body for worldwide Palestinian groups. Hamas is not a member and rejects its authority.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said neither Abbas nor the council is empowered to call elections. "It is not legitimate to issue such a recommendation," he said. "This council has expired and has no mandate and no authority."

Though Abbas said the election will be open to all Palestinians, Hamas said it would oppose the balloting, and it was hard to see how voting could be conducted in Gaza.

"The previous election passed quietly, peacefully, smoothly without a drop of blood. I don't expect the coming election to be quiet without confrontation," Said Siyam, a Hamas lawmaker in Gaza, told the group's Al Aqsa television station.

In Jerusalem, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said the plan for new elections did not come up during his talks with Abbas. "Whatever they decide is something with which we would not interfere, but I don't think that it's something for tomorrow," he said.

Solana was on a last trip to the region before a meeting Thursday in Portugal by the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers - the United States, European Union, Russia and United Nations - with their newly appointed emissary, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The meeting follows President Bush's call this week for a peace conference this fall.

Abbas said the meeting, to be presided over by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, should address the core issues of Israel's borders, Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. "We have to be ready to establish a Palestinian state when it comes," he said.

Israel has welcomed the movement to revive peace negotiations that stalled in 2000, but has been reluctant to deal with the conflict's toughest issues as long as violence continues and Hamas - which rejects Israel's legitimacy as a nation - remains a political factor.

Palestinian officials said Abbas wanted to hold elections before Israel releases dozens of Hamas legislators that it has arrested, heading off the possibility they could return to parliament and vote the caretaker government from power.

Israel is unlikely to release the legislators except as part of a prisoner exchange for three captured Israeli soldiers, one held in Gaza and two held in Lebanon by the Hezbollah militia.

To enhance Fatah's election chances, Abbas said he would change the electoral system, eliminating regional balloting. In 2006, Fatah candidates competed against each other in several constituencies, allowing Hamas to win those seats and contributing to rout of Fatah's slate.

Instead, Abbas said, Palestinians will vote for parties, and parliament seats will be apportioned according to the percentage of votes each party receives.