- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 17, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday called for early elections amid continuing street battles between his supporters and backers of the Hamas-led Cabinet, which threaten to plunge the Palestinian territories into civil war.

“I have decided to call for presidential and parliamentary elections … . The crisis is getting worse,” Mr. Abbas said in a biting speech that drew immediate condemnation from Hamas.

Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar called Mr. Abbas’ announcement an “attempted coup.”

Hours later, tens of thousands of Palestinians supporting both sides marched, and gunmen from Hamas and Mr. Abbas’ Fatah faction clashed in the Gaza Strip, exchanging fire.

Eighteen persons were injured, including seven who were shot, according to reports from hospital officials and Hamas that were cited by the Associated Press.

Both the U.S. and British governments said they backed Mr. Abbas’ pledge to hold early elections and expressed hope that a vote would break a political deadlock between Hamas and Fatah.

“Just as I appointed the government, I can dismiss it. That’s my constitutional right,” Mr. Abbas said in the speech at his Ramallah headquarters.

But even as he pressed Hamas, Mr. Abbas seemed to leave an opening for a resumption of negotiations on a “unity” government by stopping short of setting a date for elections.

Mr. Abbas blamed Hamas — and its tolerance of cross-border rocket attacks into Israel — for the deepening devastation in the Gaza Strip since Israel’s withdrawal from the region in 2005.

“We dreamed that when the Israelis would withdraw, the territories would prosper and bloom and that there would be dozens of development projects,” Mr. Abbas said. “All of that has gone to waste. Why? Because we insist on firing rockets.”

In calling for swift elections, Mr. Abbas pledged to put himself up for re-election, a risky tactic that could leave him out of a job.

It is unclear whether Palestinian law gives the president the power to call new elections or dismiss the government.

Nine months of domestic turmoil since Hamas assumed power came to a climax with a series of gunbattles last week.

Islamic militants accused Fatah security chiefs of attempting to assassinate Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh after his entourage came under a hail of bullets on Thursday night at the Gaza border.

“When a leader returns, he should be welcomed with flowers, not by people with rocket-propelled grenade launchers,” he said.

Before coming under attack, Israeli officials had stopped Mr. Haniyeh from bringing millions of dollars from a fundraising trip across the Gaza border with Egypt. His government has been bankrupt because of an international aid boycott of Hamas-controlled institutions in the Palestinian Authority.

The latest bout of fighting began Monday when Fatah security chiefs blamed Hamas military leaders for killing three children in Gaza, an apparent assassination attempt against their father, who is a high-ranking Fatah loyalist.

Hours after the yesterday’s speech by Mr. Abbas, black SUVs of the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militia circled repeatedly through the traffic circle in Ramallah’s al-Manara square.

Black-clothed gunmen stood alongside the Fatah police, a form of muscle-flexing to show Fatah’s military prowess in the West Bank. In Gaza, however, clashes were reported in three towns.

The past week of fighting has underscored the threat of a broad conflict between Hamas and Fatah.

“Palestinians have a saying: It takes only one madman to throw a stone in a well. But it takes 100 wise men to fish the stone out,” said Jamil Rabah, a Palestinian pollster.

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