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Abbas's Call for Elections Deepens Palestinian Divisions

By Robert Berger
24 October 2009

The Palestinian Authority has announced a date for elections, throwing a wrench into national unity talks with its Islamic militant rivals.

Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed a decree that presidential and parliamentary elections will take place on January 24. But the announcement only deepened Palestinian divisions.

The vote is supposed to take place in the West Bank, which is controlled by Mr. Abbas, and the Gaza Strip which is ruled by its rival faction Hamas. But Hamas quickly rejected the call for elections, saying it is illegal and unconstitutional.

Senior Hamas official Ahmad Bahar told a news conference in Gaza that Mr. Abbas's rule is illegitimate and he has no authority to declare elections. He said Mr. Abbas should be put on trial "for impersonating a president."

Hamas routed Mr. Abbas's Fatah forces in the Palestinian civil war in Gaza in 2007 and seized control of Gaza; since then, the two factions have been at loggerheads. Mr. Abbas now heads a more moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank that supports the peace process with Israel.

Speaking to Fatah members in the West Bank town of Ramallah, President Abbas took his own swipe at Hamas.

Hamas describes my government as illegitimate, he said. But Hamas is the one that seized power in a coup. Mr. Abbas said that is illegal and illegitimate. He said he is required by the Palestinian constitution to hold elections in January.

The Palestinian divisions pose a major obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which is the stated goal of the peace process sponsored by the United States. Hamas refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel, and Israel says as long as the group rules Gaza, there cannot be a Palestinian state.

Egypt has tried to overcome this obstacle by sponsoring reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah. But as one Hamas official put it: Mr. Abbas has dealt a "lethal blow to reconciliation."

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