Abbas urges Hamas to agree to early elections

A013684212.jpgRAMALLAH – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged Hamas Islamists on Monday to agree to early elections and to open a “new page” by ceding control of the Gaza Strip and holding reconciliation talks with his Fatah faction.

Shortly after Abbas spoke in the West Bank, at least five Palestinians were killed and 50 others wounded when Fatah and Hamas activists clashed in the Gaza Strip.

Two Fatah supporters, one a teenager, were killed. One Hamas security man and two Palestinians affiliated with the Islamist group also died.

Reviving talk of early Palestinian elections for the first time in several months, Abbas said in a speech to mark the anniversary of the founding of Fatah that any vote should be held in agreement with his Hamas rivals.

“I renew the option of early elections,” Abbas said. “I urge all, Fatah and Hamas movements and all other Palestinian factions, to study this alternative and not to rush, as usual, to reject it.”

Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June, prompting Abbas to sack a Hamas-led unity government and appoint a Fatah-backed administration in the West Bank. The rift helped pave the way for U.S.-backed talks with Israel.

Abbas said after Hamas’s Gaza takeover he wanted to call early elections. But it has been several months since he talked publicly about holding a ballot although his aides have raised the possibility of snap parliamentary and presidential polls.

Hamas, which won a Palestinian parliamentary vote in 2006, opposes holding elections before they are due in 2010. They say that would be unconstitutional.

RECONCILIATION?

Abbas repeated a call for Hamas to give up control of Gaza so it can hold reconciliation talks with Fatah.

“I urge those who initiated the coup … to open a new page in relations within our Palestinian home,” Abbas said in a conciliatory tone, different from previous speeches.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum repeated that while the Islamist group was ready for dialogue with Fatah, it would not accept Abbas’s demand it first give up control of the enclave.

“Abbas is betting on the American-Zionist project and not on dialogue with Hamas,” Barhoum told a news conference in Gaza. “We renew our readiness and willingness to restore dialogue with Fatah without conditions.”

Monday’s violence erupted when Fatah supporters defied a Hamas ban on public gatherings in the coastal territory. Witnesses said gunfire echoed through the streets of Gaza and Hamas declared a full alert among its forces.

Fatah said that one of its top officials in Gaza, Ibrahim Abu al-Naja, was arrested and later released by Hamas security forces. Hamas denied responsibility for the arrest.

Abbas launched peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at a U.S.-hosted peace conference last month and agreed to aim for a deal on Palestinian statehood by the end of 2008.

Hamas has shunned talks and Israel has said any dialogue with the Islamist group could torpedo the peace process.

Hamas’s control of Gaza is likely to complicate the talks, which have already been marred by friction over Israeli plans to build homes on occupied land.

Abbas on Monday said he hoped 2008 would be the year of “victory and freedom, the year of the Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital”. But creating a state would be impossible without a halt to settlement activity, he said.

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