RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday said he would order early elections to end a political impasse with Hamas, but left the door open to reaching a compromise with the Islamic militant group, PLO officials said.
Abbas announced his decision at a meeting of the PLO's powerful executive committee, and plans to deliver a formal nationwide speech next week, participants said.
"At the end of the speech, he is going to announce that he will resort to early presidential and legislative elections but will keep the door open" for forming a unity government with Hamas, said committee member Khalida Jarar. Months of unity talks between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement broke down last week.
Hamas officials immediately condemned the decision and claimed Abbas had no authority to call new elections.
"The PLO right now is not qualified to decide on any Palestinian matter because the members of the PLO executive committee right now represent only themselves and their agenda," said Ahmed Yousef, a top aide to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
Hamas trounced Fatah in parliamentary elections last January, taking control of the Palestinian legislature and Cabinet for a four-year term.
The formation of the Hamas-led government immediately triggered economic sanctions by Israel and the West, which demand the militant group renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.
With Hamas refusing to accept the international conditions, Abbas has urged the group to join Fatah in a unity coalition. The two sides have been negotiating over a more moderate platform that Abbas hopes will lead to a lifting of the sanctions. But the talks deadlocked over the division of Cabinet portfolios and the issue of recognizing Israel.
The sanctions have left the government unable to pay full salaries to its 165,000 workers, causing widespread hardship throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
On Saturday, about 2,500 unpaid Palestinian police — some firing in the air — pushed onto the grounds of Gaza City's parliament while dozens of parents carrying infants broke into a West Bank clinic in protests against the Hamas government.
Parliament guards, most of them from Hamas, tried to block the crowd in Gaza, but were pushed aside as protesters fired in the air in the building's courtyard. At one point, Hamas guards fired from a window, and protesters in the yard returned fire. There were no reports of injuries.
In the West Bank town of Jenin, some 4,000 members of the security forces staged a march to press for their salaries.
Muntassar Abul Wafa, 37, a father of eight, said he received only five payments in the past 10 months for a total of $1,400 (euro1,050), and that he had run out of cash. "Every morning, I leave early, before my children wake up for school, so as not to look at them and see the need in their eyes," he said.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, dozens of parents carrying infants broke into a mother-and-child clinic in Hebron that has been closed because of a strike by unpaid health workers.
Despite the hardship, Hamas has refused to give in to the international demands. On Friday, Haniyeh said his government will never recognize Israel and will fight for Jerusalem, telling a crowd at an Iranian mosque that he will resist U.S. pressure.
Iran has given $120 million (euro90.4 million) to the Hamas-led government, providing some relief for the beleaguered government but not enough to make up its huge deficit.
Participants in Saturday's meeting said Abbas has not set a deadline for holding the new election. But one official close to Abbas said the vote would be held in four or five months if a unity government is not formed by then. The current parliament and Cabinet would remain in office until the vote.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because a formal decision has not been made.
Calling a new election would be risky for Abbas. Abbas, a moderate elected in a separate presidential vote in 2005, would be putting his own job on the line. And there are no guarantees that Fatah would improve its standing in a new vote. The party, which dominated Palestinian politics for four decades, remains divided and tarnished by corruption, and polls have forecast another Hamas victory.
Abbas also risks setting off a new round of tensions with Hamas. In recent months, Hamas and Fatah's differences have frequently erupted into violence.
Yousef, Haniyeh's aide, said he remained hopeful a solution would be reached. "The door of dialogue is still open because this is the best and safe alternative for all of us," he told the Arabic satellite station al-Jazeera.