updated 9/2/2007 8:43:01 AM ET 2007-09-02T12:43:01

President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday announced a series of changes to Palestinian election laws aimed at bolstering his Fatah Party, the latest attempt by the Palestinian leader to marginalize Hamas since it seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.

With Abbas’ decree, Palestinians will now vote solely for party lists, while district voting will be eliminated. Hamas swept parliamentary elections last year in large part because of a strong showing at the district level.

The decree also requires all presidential and parliamentary candidates to recognize the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization as the “sole, legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people.

The Islamic militant Hamas, which is not a PLO member, condemned Abbas’ decision as illegal.

Fatah and Hamas have been at odds since Hamas won parliamentary elections in January 2006. Those differences boiled over into open warfare in June, when Hamas routed Abbas’ Fatah forces in the Gaza Strip and took control of the coastal area.

Abbas responded by kicking Hamas out of the Palestinian government and forming a new, pro-Western government based in the West Bank. He also has announced plans for new elections, though no date for the vote has been set.

In the 2006 parliamentary elections, half the seats were chosen on a national list and the other half by districts.

While the national voting appeared to be close, election officials said Hamas had won a large majority in the district races. Hamas apparently took advantage of divisions in Fatah; the long-ruling party fielded multiple candidates in many districts, splitting the Fatah vote.

Further blow to Hamas
In a further blow to Hamas, the new election law calls for a runoff in presidential elections until a candidate receives an absolute majority. The change would make it far more difficult for Hamas to capitalize on divisions among secular parties.

But while Abbas claims to be the leader of all Palestinians, Hamas remains firmly in control in Gaza and is unlikely to accept a new vote. Regular parliamentary elections are not scheduled until 2010.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum rejected the changes.

“Hamas objects to this policy of monopolizing decision making and will not deal with its outcome,” he said.

Barhoum said only the parliament, which is controlled by Hamas, has authority to change election law. But Abbas said he now holds such authority since parliament is no longer functioning.

Israel has arrested nearly 40 Hamas lawmakers, leaving the group unable to muster the quorum needed for a parliamentary session.

Abbas' law welcomed
Abbas’ new government has been welcomed in the West and by Israel. Abbas has held a series of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with the goal of drawing up a framework for a future peace deal ahead of a U.S.-sponsored conference in November.

But Abbas cautioned that his talks with Olmert have a long way to go. He said if he cannot reach a “specific agreement” with Israel by November, the conference “will be a failure.”

Abbas spoke at a news conference with the visiting European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. “It will be a very intense time and we hope the upcoming period will be constructive and positive toward advancing the peace,” Solana said.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas continued to hold nearly 60 Fatah supporters, including 11 children, who were arrested on rioting and incitement charges at a protest on Friday.

Fatah has organized public rallies for the last two weeks to denounce Hamas’ takeover. Hamas accuses Fatah supporters of trying to organize a violent comeback.

Scores of Fatah supporters were snatched from the streets and their homes following the Friday rally. Hamas has ordered suspects to post bail of $240 — a monthly salary for many Gazans.

In Ramallah, the PLO’s Executive Committee said the crackdown proves that Hamas aims “to establish a repressive fascist system.”

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