Palestinians will hold presidential and legislative elections by September, a top aide to President Mahmoud Abbas announced Saturday, a surprise move apparently prompted by the political unrest spreading in the Arab world.
Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo did not give a firm date for elections, but said the chief Palestinian decision-making body, the Palestine Liberation Organization, was already making preparations.
"We call on parties to put aside all of their differences and to focus on conducting the elections by September at the latest," he told a news conference.
However, Abbas' main political rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, said it would not participate.
Abed Rabbo spoke a day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in response to nearly three weeks of mass protests against his 30-year rule. The Egyptian protests and another successful revolt in Tunisia a month earlier have inspired calls for democratic reform throughout a region dominated by autocratic governments.
Palestinian elections were meant to be held last year, but the vote was put off because of the split between Abbas' government in the West Bank and the rival Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas rose to power in parliamentary elections in 2006, and a year later seized Gaza from forces loyal to Abbas' Fatah movement. Since then, both sides have resisted calls for new elections as repeated attempts to reconcile failed.
The Palestinians hope to turn Gaza and the West Bank, located on opposite sides of Israel, into an independent state, with east Jerusalem as their capital. The internal divisions are a major stumbling block to any future deal.
In Gaza, a Hamas official said Saturday that they would not allow elections in the coastal strip.
"Hamas will not participate or recognize or give any cover for this election and we consider this announcement a conspiracy against the Palestinian people," said spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. "Hamas believes in elections but elections can come only after [political] reconciliation."
Also Saturday, Abbas' chief peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, announced his resignation. The move came in response to damaging leaks by pan-Arab satellite television station al-Jazeera that detailed some of the inner workings of previous peace negotiations.
Erekat told The Associated Press that an investigation determined that internal documents obtained by Al-Jazeera were leaked by someone from his office. "If there was any security failure in my office, then I am responsible. For that, I have resigned," he said.
The documents showed that during peace negotiations with Israel in 2008, the Palestinians were prepared to make significant concessions on final borders with Israel and on the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees with claims to lost properties in what is now Israel.
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