Palestinian turf wars accelerate

President Abbas called Saturday for early elections. Hamas says it won't participate.

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. That angered supporters of the Islamic militant party. Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar said the suggestion was tantamount to a coup attempt by Abbas.

"Some feel [elections] are the kind of intervention that could lead ... out of an impasse. Others feel that this can lead us to further confrontation," says Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator who said that she supports elections as long as both sides agree to them.

"The current dynamic cannot be sustained. It polarizes, provokes confrontation, and we have total paralysis in the political system. We are facing a serious disintegration." Abbas's address came at the end of a week of unprecedented tension between the two parties. Hamas officials on Friday accused Abbas ally Mohammad Dahlan of ordering gunmen to open fire on Mr. Haniyeh as he returned to Gaza from two weeks abroad.

"Today, I told my wife and children not to leave home, because I am very afraid for their life," Gaza resident Said Yousef said Sunday. "I blame both sides, because nobody surrenders. You need to stop and say enough."

The clashes in Gaza spurred concern about violence spreading to the West Bank. While Hamas's military wing has the upper hand in Gaza, Fatah forces could retaliate in the West Bank where they are numerically superior.

In Ramallah Friday, at least 32 Hamas demonstrators were injured during a march by Fatah-allied security officers who beat marchers and allegedly fired into the crowd. "I was terrified. What we saw only happens in horror movies," says Bassem Nammas, who watched the clash develop in the street outside his shop. "We have not seen responsible leadership. Abbas is weak and he didn't allow Haniyeh to operate. Haniyeh has forgotten that he isn't a resistance leader."

Since Hamas's election, the militant group's refusal to recognize Israel and enter peace negotiations has undermined cooperation with Abbas, who remains the head of the Palestinian Authority. The turmoil has hurt support for both sides. Hamas's approval rating fell from 42 to 33 percent since September, while Fatah's fell from 55 to 40 percent, according to the poll released Sunday.

Abbas's announcement seemed to lift the spirits of Fatah's Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which hopes elections will end Hamas's reign. In Ramallah, an Al Aqsa officer watched militiamen in black dress patrol the Al-Manara traffic circle with machine guns and the militia's black sports utility vehicle repeatedly passed through the intersection.

"The boys are excited about the call for elections. We hope there will be change," says a commander who used the pseudonym Abu Rami. "In Gaza, there might be a civil war, but in the West Bank there won't be. We have deployed to stop the escalation."

Safwat al-Kahlout contributed to this report from Gaza City.

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