Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday postponed planned elections amid a dispute over voting in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem and divisions in his Fatah party.
Abbas announced the postponement of parliamentary elections due on May 22, and a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official later confirmed that it extended to the presidential ballot planned for July 31.
The 85-year-old president blamed Israel for uncertainty about whether it would allow the Palestinian election to proceed in Jerusalem as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
"Facing this difficult situation, we decided to postpone the date of holding legislative elections until the participation of Jerusalem and its people is guaranteed," he said in a speech on Palestinian TV.
The postponement came three months after the elections were called, and on the day that campaigning was due to begin.
The polls were widely seen as a response to criticism of the democratic legitimacy of Palestinian institutions, including Abbas's own presidency.
The delay drew immediate criticism from political opponents and from some disappointed voters, for whom the votes would have been the first in 15 years.
Abbas and his allies have been weakened by younger challengers from within his own party, and many Palestinians regard the Jerusalem issue as an excuse to avoid elections that Fatah might well lose to its Islamist rivals Hamas, as it did in the last parliamentary ballot in 2006.
Hamas immediately criticised the reversal, and thousands of its supporters rallied in Gaza after Friday prayers in condemnation of the decision.
"We reject this decision which violates the national consensus, and Fatah movement bears responsibility for the consequences of this position," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
After initial confusion over whether the presidential vote would also be delayed, Wasel Abu Youssef, a senior PLO member, told Reuters the postponement covered "elections in all their stages, legislative and presidential. There will not be any elections without Jerusalem."
YOUNG WANT TO VOTE
Protesters in Gaza and the West Bank called for the elections to proceed as scheduled - for many it would be their first election.
"As a young Palestinian citizen, I call for conducting elections, and I want my right to elect so I would see new faces, young faces, and see new political stances," said Wael Deys, from Hebron.
Abbas had hinted at the delay for weeks by claiming that Israel had not agreed to permit East Jerusalem Palestinians to vote in the city.
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said earlier this week that there had been no formal Israeli announcement on whether it would allow Palestinian voting in Jerusalem - as it did during the last elections in 2006 - and Israeli officials said on Thursday that there had been no change.
"The postponement of legislative elections is illegal. It was made by a president who lost his legitimacy over a decade," said Mohammad Dahlan, a former Palestinian security minister and a critic of Abbas.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the decision "deeply disappointing" and said a new election date "should be set without delay."
Internal rifts surfaced in Abbas's party in March when jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and Nasser Al-Qudwa - a nephew of the party's late founder Yasser Arafat - announced a rival slate of candidates to run against Abbas's lineup.
Nevertheless, election preparations were well under way, with thousands of new voters and three dozen party lists registered.
"The delay will cause a great disappointment among Palestinians, most of (whom) hoped it was time to end the divisions and bring about a change," said Gaza analyst Talal Okal.
Abbas has been in power since 2005 and has ruled by decree for over a decade. The timing of his election announcement was seen by some as an attempt to repair ties with U.S. President Joe Biden after they plummeted under predecessor Donald Trump.
Analysts say that with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict low on Biden's priority list, Washington prefers to avoid elections that could empower Hamas and anger Israel as U.S. officials press ahead on nuclear talks with Iran.
State Department Spokesman Ned Price said: "The exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinian people and for the Palestinian leadership to determine."