Abbas Threatens to Delay Elections if Hamas Refuses Voting in Gaza

Hundreds protest in Ramallah against division between Hamas and Fatah, as Palestinian president says West Bank and Gaza must have unified elections.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Thursday that an election promised by September would not be held if Hamas refused to allow voting in the Gaza Strip.

The election promise was issued on Saturday by the Palestine Liberation Organization in an apparent bid to head off any wave of popular protest fanned by the uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Daniel Bar-On

But Abbas said he could not divide Palestinian territory.

"Elections should include the West Bank and Gaza, and without that we cannot hold elections," the president told a news conference.

Hamas, an Islamist movement opposed to peace with Israel, has controlled the Gaza Strip since seizing it from the ruling Fatah in a 2007 bloody coup. Abbas' Palestinian Authority holds sway in the West Bank. The two territories, which would form a single state under a peace treaty with Israel, are separated by Israeli land.

"Elections should include the West Bank and Gaza, and without that we cannot hold elections," the president told a news conference following talks with visiting East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta.

Several hundred Palestinians marched in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Thursday, demanding an end to the divisions between Fatah and Hamas. "The people want an end to division," some chanted.

Police, who had previously said they would ban demonstrations, did not intervene and allowed the protest to continue uninterrupted.

The protest was called for by a number of Palestinian groups who said they were fed up with the de-facto split between the West Bank ruled by the Fatah-backed Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas.

Some Palestinians have decided to step up popular pressure on both Fatah and Hamas to end their differences and re-unite the country in light of the failure of the peace process.

Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain or Yemen there does not appear to be a strong anti-government groundswell among Palestinians. Their main frustrations are over the unending split between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement and the lack of progress towards a peace that will end Israeli occupation and finally give them a state of their own.

"The demonstrators might say, 'we want elections', well, we are ready for elections. The demonstrators might say, 'stop negotiating with the Israelis', well there are no negotiations with the Israelis," said Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdainah.

"Why does Hamas say no? Why is no one criticising Hamas over this?" he told Reuters on Wednesday. "Whenever there is a problem you have to go back to the people. That is democracy, that is what we are doing, but Hamas is refusing to cooperate. We cannot [hold elections] in the West bank alone. They will say we are trying to divide the country and make two states."

Abbas' Palestinian Authority at the weekend said the spirit of change in Egypt should inspire Palestinians to unite.

"The Palestinian leadership decided to hold presidential and legislative elections before September," senior Abbas aide Yasser Abed Rabbo told reporters.

"It urges all the sides to put their differences aside," he said, referring to the bitter rivalry with Hamas.

But Hamas quickly turned down the proposal. Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the Western-backed Abbas, who has served as president since 2005, lacked the legitimacy to make such a call.

"Hamas will not take part in this election. We will not give it legitimacy. And we will not recognize the results," Barhoum said on Saturday.

The last Palestinian presidential and legislative elections were held in 2005 and 2006, when Hamas won power in a surprise result. A unity government was short-lived and Hamas fighters in 2007 drove Fatah forces out of Gaza, seizing control of the enclave.