RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) postponed upcoming parliamentary elections on Saturday, giving his struggling Fatah party time to fend off a growing challenge by Hamas. The Islamic group condemned the delay as a violation of a cease-fire agreement but stopped short of withdrawing from the truce.
Abbas, who made the announcement in Ramallah (search), did not give a new date for the election, which had been scheduled for July 17. He said a date would be set after discussions with the Palestinian legislature and rival political factions, including Hamas.
The official reason for the delay was technical. Abbas has been at odds with the Fatah-dominated parliament over the voting procedure. He wants all candidates chosen on national lists, while some party members believe their chances for re-election would be better with voting by district.
"This is for more consultation and for legal measures to take place," Abbas said in a televised address. "Time is short. Postponement was necessary to enable ourselves to finalize the legal measures and consultations between factions."
But the move appeared aimed at fending off the threat by Hamas, which is fielding candidates for parliament for the first time.
Tapping into voter disgruntlement over years of Fatah corruption, the militant group has captured a number of key races in recent local elections and appears poised for strong gains in the legislative vote as well.
Hamas officials accused Abbas of stonewalling because of disorganization within his party.
"This decision was taken unilaterally without any consultation with the Palestinian factions, and it came as a response for the conditions and the atmosphere of the Fatah movement and not for any national consideration," said Sami Abu Zuhri (search), a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip.
While accusing Abbas of violating understandings of the cease-fire agreement, Abu Zuhri indicated that Hamas would continue to honor the truce, saying only that Abbas' decision "might harm the credibility of relations" with Hamas.
Abbas reached the cease-fire agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) on Feb. 8 in an effort to end four years of fighting. Hamas and other militant groups agreed the following month to honor the truce in return for pledges from Abbas to give them a formal role in Palestinian decision-making. Violence has dropped sharply since then.
Islamic Jihad, a violent group that is boycotting the election, called for Palestinian national unity but also did not mention calling off the cease-fire. "We hope this decision will not harm the process of democracy," said the group's top leader in Gaza, Nafez Azzam (search).
Independent Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said maintaining the truce was in everyone's interest. She said the election delay would let Fatah hold primaries and select more popular candidates, while waiting until after Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza would bolster Hamas. Gaza is the group's stronghold.
"This plays into the hands of everybody," she said. "I believe the period of calm will continue as an act of will and political commitment by the different factions."
Still, the delay added to the heightened tensions between Hamas and Abbas. Hamas already is angry over Fatah's attempts to overturn its victories in three recent local elections in Gaza.
A court ordered a new vote in the districts after Fatah complained of irregularities. But Palestinian election officials postponed the rerun earlier this week after Hamas refused to participate.
Hamas, which opposes peace with Israel, has focused its campaigns on local issues like sewers and clean government. But a strong electoral showing would likely constrain Abbas' efforts to restart peace talks with Israel.
Israel had no immediate reaction to the delay. In the past, officials have said Palestinian elections are an internal matter.
Abbas, under pressure by Israel to disarm militants, has been trying to co-opt Hamas and other violent groups into the political system. But his efforts have had mixed results.
In Gaza on Saturday, masked Palestinian gunmen detained a Palestinian diplomat as he prepared to cross the border into Gaza. The gunmen, affiliated with Fatah, said they were protesting age restrictions that prevent them from being hired as policemen.
The diplomat was not harmed and the gunmen said he was free to go but refused to hand him his passport.
It was the latest sign of chaos in the Palestinian areas, despite Abbas' efforts to reform his security forces and restore law and order.
The Palestinians plan to hire 5,000 policemen in Gaza as part of Abbas' reform efforts and to prepare for Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza in August. However, the jobs are open only to men between 18 and 22. The protesters Saturday were in their late 20s and early 30s.