RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday insisted he will push ahead with new elections, perhaps this summer, despite a wave of factional fighting between his Fatah party and the radical Islamic group Hamas.
With visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair by his side, Abbas also reached out to Israel in hopes momentum toward peacemaking will provide an electoral edge over Hamas.
In the Gaza Strip, where the Palestinian infighting has been concentrated, there was a relative lull after the sides declared a truce late Sunday. But by Monday evening, the tensions threatened to explode into more violence after a Fatah supporter was killed in a gunfight and a senior Fatah official was briefly seized by Hamas militants.
Hamas and Fatah have been locked in a power struggle since the Islamic group defeated Fatah in legislative elections in January. Abbas' Fatah party controls the presidency, while Hamas controls parliament and the Palestinian Cabinet, putting it in charge of most government functions.
The latest fighting erupted after the three young sons of a Fatah security officer were gunned down last week, and worsened following Abbas' announcement Saturday that he would call new elections to end the impasse.
At a joint news conference with Blair in Ramallah, Abbas said the violence would not deter him from going ahead with presidential and legislative elections — several years ahead of schedule.
"We want to examine the will of the people. Do they still trust those they have chosen?" he said. Abbas was elected president in 2005 and Hamas won a separate parliamentary vote a year later.
An opinion poll published Sunday indicated Abbas was in a tie with the most popular Hamas politician, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Abbas' aides said he hopes his new decisiveness, coupled with progress in negotiations with Israel, will boost his popularity.
Abbas also said he is ready to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert anytime. "We have to meet. We need each other, and we have to deal with our problems," Abbas said, adopting a much warmer tone than in the past.
Blair was effusive in his praise of Abbas and urged the world to rally behind the Palestinian president.
"It is important for us, but I think for the whole of the international community, to work with people who want a genuine two-state solution" between Israel and the Palestinians, he said. "We want to work with people of moderation and tolerance who understand that in today's world people of different faiths want to live together."
After Blair's meeting with Olmert, the Israel leader said he hoped to have a summit with Abbas "very soon" and said officials from both sides are already working on the preparations.
He said a special joint committee will be set up "in the coming days" to hammer out the details of a prisoner swap — a key issue that has prevented the men from meeting in the past. The Palestinians want Israel to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners; Olmert says there can be no progress until Palestinian militants release an Israeli soldier who was captured last June.
Abbas, a moderate, favors a peace agreement with Israel. Hamas is committed to Israel's destruction and refuses to moderate, despite an international economic boycott that has caused widespread hardship in the West Bank and Gaza.
Abbas had hoped to end the standoff with Hamas by forming a more moderate coalition government. But months of negotiations broke down in late November, setting the stage for his plan to hold early elections. Hamas has condemned the election plan as a coup and threatened to boycott the vote.
"We stand against any step that is against the law and against the constitution," Khaled Mashaal, Hamas' exiled leader, told the British Broadcasting Corp.
Mashaal issued a statement from his headquarters in Syria, saying he had been in touch with key mediators— including Qatar and Egypt — to discuss "how to contain the current tension in the Palestinian area." The state-run Qatar news agency reported Monday that Emir Sheikh Hamad Khalifa Al-Thani called Haniyeh Monday to discuss the situation in Gaza.
Mashaal's statement provided no details, but said Mashaal stressed Hamas' commitment to avoid infighting and "dialogue as the only way to solve differences and problems with Fatah."
In Gaza, the week-old wave of violence appeared to be cooling after Sunday night's truce announcement. But some fighting persisted, especially in northern Gaza.
One Fatah supporter was killed and five people wounded in fighting in the northern town of Jebaliya, and a 16-year-old bystander was shot in the neck during a gunbattle in Gaza City. The two sides also accused each other of carrying out a series of kidnappings.
In the most brazen abduction, Sufian Abu Zaydeh, a former Cabinet minister and top Fatah official in Gaza, was seized by Hamas militants as he was driving alone to his home late Monday in northern Gaza. Abu Zaydeh was released unharmed less than an hour later.
Still, the fighting was much less serious than in recent days, which have seen assassination attempts on the Palestinian prime minister and foreign minister — both top Hamas officials — and a mortar attack on Abbas' office in Gaza.
Amid the continuing flare-ups, both sides accused each other of violating the truce but pledged to honor the deal. "We are trying to halt all breaches," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.