RAMALLAH, West Bank — In a bid to undercut his Hamas rivals and solidify control in the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is working to dilute the power of the fractured Palestinian legislature and expand the role of controversial military courts.
In his latest move, made public Monday by a Palestinian human rights group, Abbas issued a decree granting broad power to military courts to decide the fate of Palestinians accused of harming "public safety."
The order will allow military judges to handle new charges against civilians.
The latest moves by Abbas are drawing criticism from human rights groups and a cross-section of Palestinian lawmakers.
Even some of his advisers view the presidential decrees as risky steps that could undermine the foundation of a fragile government once viewed as the best hope for establishing a healthy democracy in the Arab Middle East.
"In my opinion, this could be the beginning of the end of the Palestinian Authority," said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent lawmaker who served as information minister in the now-dissolved coalition government.
Since Hamas seized military and political control of the Gaza Strip last month, Abbas has declared a state of emergency, dissolved the young coalition government, established a pro-Western emergency Cabinet, outlawed armed militias, given the new government power to crack down on Hamas charities and repealed laws giving Palestinian lawmakers a chance to quickly reject the president's hand-picked ministers.
Military and security courts became a point of contention under the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who was criticized by human rights groups for establishing system of show trials used to silence critics. In one 1999 case, a Palestinian military officer was tried, sentenced for causing "public disorder" and executed within hours, before he had a chance to appeal his death sentence.
"This is dangerous for the future," said Dr. Ali Kashan, an Abbas legal adviser who helped write the legal framework for the Palestinian Authority. "Abu Mazen (Abbas) and some people around him — they would like to have everything within the state of emergency. This is misguided, especially for rights and freedoms."
Abbas backers say the president's measures are a response to the Hamas military campaign in Gaza, which swiftly toppled government fighters loyal to the president and his secular Fatah party. Abbas' first move was to fire Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh as prime minister and install economist Salam Fayyad as head of a temporary emergency Cabinet.
The United States and Israel moved quickly to boost Abbas by ending a 17-month financial boycott of the Palestinian Authority. That helped Abbas, who has long been criticized as weak and indecisive, regain some support.
But Abbas' strategy still isn't clear. By law, he must obtain support from two-thirds of the Palestinian parliament to extend the life of the Fayyad Cabinet beyond 30 days — which expires this weekend.
The State Department had no comment Monday on Abbas' latest move, but has previously indicated it will give Abbas broad leeway in using his emergency powers. When asked about the deadline, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last month that the U.S. government "will leave to the Palestinians issues of how they work their own constitutional issues."
Abbas has called for a new legislative session to begin on Tuesday. But the parliament, dominated by Hamas members, has been paralyzed. Nearly a third of the 132 Palestinian lawmakers — mainly Hamas members — have been rounded up by Israeli soldiers and thrown in jail indefinitely. The legislature hasn't met to consider serious business in months. Hamas refuses to recognize the president's actions. And it is unlikely that enough lawmakers will turn up to hold a new session.
"The whole legislative structure right now is not working," said Jibril Mohammed, a researcher at Panorama, a Palestinian nonprofit pro-democracy group. "The whole parliament is a tool now in the internal struggle. It's not a democratic tool now."
If the parliament session falters, Abbas is expected to take new steps to establish a revamped caretaker government headed by Fayyad. But that's likely to further alienate Hamas, which has been calling for talks with Abbas to resurrect the unity government.
Abbas and his allies appear more inclined to push for new elections in hopes that voters would reject Hamas and return Fatah to power. Since Fatah has done little to address the perception that it's corrupt, that is far from certain.
It's also impossible to envision fair elections being held in the current environment. Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip would likely prevent a vote from taking place. The Islamist group is also worried that Israel will do all it can to prevent Hamas from taking part in new elections and will probably boycott any elections.
"Any new election is a game to get Hamas out," said Ayman Daraghmeh, one of the Hamas lawmakers who hasn't been thrown in an Israeli jail. "Any new elections would not be fair."
Hamas is pressing for renewed talks with Fatah, but any new unity government would likely lead to renewed isolation for the Palestinian Authority if it again refuses to explicitly embrace a two-state solution and accept Israel as a neighbor.
"There is a crisis of legitimacy in Palestine right now," Mohammed said. "We are in need of a new Palestinian social contract."