Hamas to ban elections in Gaza

GAZA CITY: Hamas said on Wednesday it will ban the organisation of elections in its Gaza Strip stronghold after president Mahmud Abbas called for a vote in the Palestinian territories.

The move raised doubts about whether the vote decreed by the Western-backed president would take place in January and threatened to further deepen the bitter rift between his secular Fatah party and its Islamist rivals.

The Hamas-run interior ministry said in a statement it "will hold accountable anyone involved in the elections."

The ministry "rejects the holding of elections in the Gaza Strip because they were announced by someone who has no right to make such an announcement and because it came without national agreement," it added.

Last week Abbas called for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held on January 24 after Hamas declined to sign on to an Egypt-brokered reconciliation agreement inked by his secular Fatah party.

Abbas issued a decree ordering elections in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, in a move seen by some as turning up the heat on the Islamist group to sign the deal.

Hamas -- which trounced Abbas's secular Fatah faction in the last parliamentary elections in January 2006 -- rejected the decree as an "illegal and unconstitutional step."

Abbas was elected on January 9, 2005 for a four-year term. The Palestinian Authority extended his presidency by one year so presidential and parliamentary elections could be held on the same date, as required by Palestinian Basic Law.

Hamas has consistently rejected the extension granted to Abbas, and no longer considers him to be the legitimate president of the Palestinian people.

On Saturday Hamas parliamentary speaker Ahmed Bahar said Abbas should be put on trial "for usurping power."

Abbas has said he is determined to proceed with organising the polls and denied the move was a tactic to get Hamas to sign the unity agreement.

The Central Election Commission has begun work on implementing the decree, and on Wednesday Salih Rafat, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said his group hoped to persuade Hamas to participate.

"The leadership is now making calls to all the Arab countries to assume their role with Hamas to facilitate the holding of these elections," Rafat told AFP in the West Bank political capital of Ramallah.

The Egyptian proposal made earlier this year would see new elections being held in June 2010. Fatah has signed the accord but Hamas said it could not sign the document because it differed from previous understandings.

Abbas has said he remains determined to try to reconcile with Hamas, and has left open the possibility of holding elections in June if Hamas signs the Egyptian agreement.

A poll earlier this month showed 40 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would vote for Fatah compared with just 18.7 percent for Hamas.

Hamas-Fatah tensions date back to the start of limited Palestinian self-rule in the mid-1990s when Fatah strongmen cracked down on Islamist activists.

The simmering divisions boiled over in June 2007 when Hamas fighters expelled Abbas loyalists from Gaza in a week of bloody clashes, seizing control of the impoverished and densely populated territory, which is home to 1.5 million people.

Since then the Palestinians have been divided into mutually hostile camps in the West Bank and Gaza, with Fatah and Hamas accusing each other of persecuting their political opponents in the territories under their control.