Palestinian Turf Wars Accelerate ; President Abbas Called Saturday for Early Elections. Hamas Says It Won't Participate

By Joshua Mitnick Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 18, 2006 | Go to article overview

Palestinian Turf Wars Accelerate ; President Abbas Called Saturday for Early Elections. Hamas Says It Won't Participate


Joshua Mitnick Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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