JERUSALEM – In a direct challenge to the governing Hamas movement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called Saturday for new elections, deepening a confrontation that has triggered a surge of factional violence and raised fears of civil war.
Hamas called the move a coup attempt and promised to block it, raising questions about whether such elections could go forward.
Abbas’ announcement ratcheted up tensions between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah faction, and thousands of followers of both groups took to the streets. Armed clashes and stone-throwing confrontations erupted in the Gaza Strip, where more than a dozen people were reported wounded.
“I have decided to call for early presidential and parliamentary elections,” Abbas said in a speech at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “Let us return to the people, so the people will have its say and the people will be the judge.”
Abbas said he had already begun consultations to prepare for the vote, which he decided to call after the failure of talks to form a more moderate governing coalition acceptable to Western donors who have imposed crippling sanctions on the Hamas-led government. The donors have demanded that the government recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements.
“At all times, my goal remains agreement on forming a national unity government … to lift the siege on our people and get us out of this predicament,” Abbas said, signaling that he had not ruled out further coalition efforts.
Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Abbas, said that for legal and technical reasons elections could not be held before the middle of next year and that Abbas had to first issue a presidential decree formally calling elections.
But Hamas, which swept Fatah from power in parliamentary elections last January, emphatically ruled out any early vote, which would cut short the legislature’s four-year term.
“The Palestinian government rejects this call for early elections and considers it a coup against Palestinian legitimacy and the will of the Palestinian people,” the Hamas-led government said in a statement.
Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar of Hamas said that an early election would be “unconstitutional.” The Palestinian Basic Law, which serves as a constitution, has no provision for calling early elections and requires presidential decrees to be approved by the parliament, which is dominated by Hamas.
“Bypassing the decision of the Palestinian people … is unacceptable,” Zahar told the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera. “The Palestinian people has already had its say.”
Abbas is authorized by law to dismiss the prime minister and his Cabinet, but there is no similar provision for dissolving parliament and calling new elections.