As Hamas makes gains, will Abbas's ruling party unravel?

On Saturday, the Palestinian president delayed a vote amid disarray in his party.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's decision over the weekend to postpone Palestinian parliamentary elections raised concern immediately about a confrontation with militant Hamas, poised to trounce Mr. Abbas's ruling Fatah party in a vote scheduled for next month.

But after months of promising to hold the elections on July 17, the Palestinian president's reversal actually highlights the deepening tensions within his own party, analysts and officials say. It's expected now that the vote will be held this fall.

"[The delay] is not out of fear for Hamas, as so many people say," says Fatah lawmaker Ghazi Hanineyeh. "We are afraid of ourselves."

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Founded by the late Yasser Arafat as the umbrella political party that galvanized Palestinian resistance to Israel, Fatah has unraveled into a loose alliance of rival factions tainted by allegations of corruption and mismanagement. Delaying the vote could give Abbas enough time to reform the party and avert collapse when it faces Hamas in the legislative vote, analysts say.

The crisis gripping Fatah was evident in Nablus Sunday as members of its armed wing, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, raided Palestinian government offices to demand jobs in the Palestinian Authority's security services, the Associated Press reported.

Hamas officials condemned the delay, saying the president's commitment to a July vote figured as a key stipulation in an agreement from earlier this year to temporarily halt attacks on Israel.

And as Hamas reiterated a commitment to a fragile four-month calm that has buoyed hopes for a revival of peace talks, the postponement allowed Hamas to burnish its credentials as a responsible opposition to Fatah.

"This postponement puts us in an unstable situation. It only prolongs chaos," says Sheikh Hassan Youssef, the leader of Hamas in the West Bank, in an interview. "It leaves the Palestinian citizens unsure about their future."

Less than two weeks after basking in the international spotlight from a White House meeting with President Bush, Abbas returned home last week to find himself ailing both politically and physically. As the Palestinian president underwent an operation in Jordan, Fatah lawmakers were at odds with one another over how to determine the results of elections just weeks away.

Though essentially a technical debate, the bickering mirrored the same unrest within the Fatah that helped Hamas rack up a string of unexpected victories in three rounds of local elections held over recent months.

"[Fatah] needs to put their house in order. It's a movement without an ideology or without a glue, and without its historic leader," says Said Zeedani, a Ramallah-based political analyst. "They have to change, otherwise they are going to split."

The delay moves the elections to after Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip scheduled for Aug. 15. Mr. Zeedani says the decision would insulate the vote from the potential instability in the weeks before the evacuation of Israeli settlements.

But other observers warned that the withdrawal of the Israelis could unleash forces further complicating the Palestinians' ability to hold elections.

The Israeli exit is likely to coronate Hamas as the leading political force in Gaza, and encourage some of Abbas's security chiefs to break off from Fatah, says Sameeh Shabeeb, a Fatah activist. Meanwhile, contact with the West Bank may be further restricted, says Mr. Shabeeb.

"After the disengagement we will have a new political reality,'' he says. "The leadership between Gaza and the central political leadership will be disconnected."

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