While the Palestinian president's call this weekend for early
elections seemed aimed at forcing rival Hamas into choosing polls or
a power-sharing government, the ensuing violence has left him with
the more urgent task of averting all-out war.
Sunday, after a violent week, the entourage of Hamas's foreign
minister was attacked, one of President Mahmoud Abbas's security
officers was killed, and mortars landed near the president's office.
Although Palestinians say they oppose the fighting as a
disastrous implosion of the six-year uprising against Israel, they
also know that turf wars between Hamas and Mr. Abbas's Fatah Party
have a dynamic that could spin out of control.
"Nobody is interested in a civil war, and nobody is preparing for
a civil war, but things might deteriorate and these factions might
lose control, and then you have it without preparing for it," says
Said Zeidani, a Ramallah-based political analyst. "This is something
that needs to be taken into account seriously."
He says options to avert war are the same ones that Abbas put to
Hamas: elections or a power-sharing "unity" government.
A poll released Sunday by the Palestinian Center for Policy and
Survey Research showed 61 percent support for an early general
election. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, however, said his
party would boycott an early vote.
During Abbas's address Saturday, the president omitted a
timetable for new elections, a move that analysts say leaves the
door open to renewed talks with Hamas. Abbas's election proposal was
praised by US and British leaders as an opening for negotiations.
Israel has remained quiet.
"Whenever there is tension, Fatah and Hamas lose in popularity,"
Jamil Sabah, the director of the public opinion research firm Near
East Consulting. "People want unity, they want brothers to act as
brothers, and they don't want war."
The foreboding tension was palpable throughout the Palestinian
territories over the weekend, and the fear of street battles
prompted Gaza's schools to close early Sunday. In Gaza's Jabaliya
refugee camp, tens of thousands of Fatah supporters took to the
street. In Gaza City, Abbas's presidential guards took over two
government ministries that overlook his residence.
"What [Fatah] is doing in addition to the Abbas decision is
dangerous and it takes the Palestinian cause back 10 years," says
Bassem Farhi, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. "The situation is very bad,
but we hope that things will calm down."
Amid a punishing Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip
this summer, and a public sector salary crisis spurred by an
international aid boycott of Hamas, a "unity" government between
Hamas and Fatah has proven elusive through several rounds of talks.
Instead, there have been mutual accusations for the Palestinians'
deepening economic misery and rising anarchy on the streets.
In a pointed address from his Ramallah headquarters in which he
blamed Hamas for allowing Gaza to sink into chaos rather than
enjoying economic prosperity, Abbas suggested the new vote even
though he's been in office less than two years, and the Hamas
majority parliament only nine months. …