RAMALLAH, West Bank — RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Seeking an end to the political deadlock that is impoverishing the Palestinian people and pushing them closer to civil war, President Mahmoud Abbas called yesterday for new presidential and legislative elections to be held as soon as possible.
The announcement came as a direct challenge to Hamas, which won a landslide victory over Abbas' Fatah Party less than one year ago. Hamas officials immediately rejected the call for early elections as an illegal attempt by Abbas to mount a "coup."
Hours later, dozens of Hamas gunmen attacked a training base of Abbas' presidential guard in Gaza City, the guard said. One guard died and three were wounded in the fierce battle early today, a guard statement said.
Abbas' decision follows weeks of violence and rising tensions between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, which have failed to agree on forming a new unity government that would break the crippling international boycott against the current Hamas-led administration.
At the heart of the political feud are two competing visions of the way forward for the Palestinian people. The Fatah Party, led by Abbas, wants to pursue negotiations with Israel to end the military occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state. But Hamas, whose military wing has been responsible for scores of bombings and attacks against Israel, refuses to recognize the Jewish state and advocates armed resistance as perhaps the only solution to the conflict with Israel.
Frustrated by months of fruitless talks and worsening economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, Abbas said it was time for the Palestinian people to choose which path their government should take.
"According to the basic law, the people are the source of all authority - so they have to decide this issue and they will be the judge," Abbas said in a speech broadcast live on Palestine TV from his Ramallah headquarters to viewers in the West Bank and Gaza.
Abbas' speech caps one of the most violent weeks of fighting among Palestinians in recent months, including the killing of three children of a top Fatah official, gun battles between supporters of Fatah and Hamas, and an attack on Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's convoy, killing his bodyguard and wounding his son and a close adviser.
By calling for early elections, Abbas runs the risk of aggravating the already strained relations between the political factions. He is also taking a gamble on losing his own position, which he won during presidential elections in 2005. A Hamas victory in both presidential and parliamentary elections would complete the takeover of Palestinian politics by the Islamic resistance movement, which is regarded as a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union.
Abbas said Palestinians should go to the polls as soon as possible, though one Abbas aide said legal and technical requirements would delay an election until the middle of 2007. Other aides said it might come as soon as March.
Either way, there would be several months to form a unity government, which Abbas said he would support if it meant Western sanctions could be lifted.
Hamas officials criticized Abbas' speech as an attempt by Fatah to steal control of the government from Hamas, which took office in March. "We are not going to allow elections to take place," said Mahmoud al-Zahar, the Hamas foreign minister, according to the Associated Press. "This is a real coup. [Abbas] has never accepted this government. He has never sat in one government meeting. He has never invited one government minister to meet with foreign ministers."
Hamas leaders said Abbas' call for early elections is illegal under Palestinian law.
Abbas disagreed. "I signed the decree to form this government, and I can sign its resignation. This is my right," said Abbas, a normally reserved speaker who appeared emotional and angry during his 90-minute speech.
Public opinion polls offer conflicting reports of the popularity of Hamas versus Fatah.
A survey released yesterday by Near East Consulting of Ramallah found that 32 percent of Palestinians trust Fatah and 27 percent trust Hamas, while 35 percent don't trust any faction. But the same survey found that 51 percent of respondents "most trust" Haniyeh of Hamas, while 49 "most trust" Abbas of Fatah.
During elections in January, many voters said they cast their ballots for Hamas as a reaction to years of ineffective and corrupt leadership under Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party. Voters, however, appeared less interested in Hamas' hard-line stance against Israel than its promises of job creation and cleaner government.
But after nine tumultuous months in office, during which Western donors cut off millions of dollars in aid money to the Palestinians, Haniyeh's Hamas-led government has struggled to pay salaries or provide basic services. Donors have said they will not renew funding until the Hamas-led government recognizes Israel and renounces violence - something Hamas leaders say would compromise the most fundamental tenets of their movement.
In many parts of the West Bank and Gaza, more than half of the working population is unemployed, thousands of unpaid government workers are on strike, and many frustrated Palestinians are moving abroad.
"Our situation changed from people who struggle to people who beg," Abbas said. "There is unemployment and the social values have collapsed, and the people have lost hope."
But Fatah is also troubled. Deeply fractured and disorganized, the party has not recovered from its resounding defeat this year.
Immediately after the Abbas speech, celebratory gunfire broke out in downtown Ramallah by members of the Fatah-linked Al-Aqsa Martyrs' brigade. Reaction from ordinary Palestinians caught in the throes of this political turmoil was mixed.
"This is the only exit from the current situation," said Ehad Mustafa Umaydad, who hawks toiletries in the city market.
A university graduate, Umaydad said he cannot find a job in an economy that has been crippled by months of sanctions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.