By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ali Sawafta
GAZA/RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has quietly established a constitutional court that analysts say concentrates more power in his hands and may allow him to sideline the Islamist group Hamas in the event of a succession struggle.
The nine-member body, which will have supremacy over all lower courts, was created without fanfare by presidential decree on April 3 and will be inaugurated once its ninth member is sworn in at a ceremony on Monday, officials said.
Critics say the body is packed with jurists from Abbas's Fatah party and risks deepening Palestinian political divisions. Fatah says it is Abbas's right to create the court, which it says is independent of the 81-year-old president.
"Neither the president nor any of the leaders (of Fatah) has a private agenda regarding this issue," said Osama al-Qwasmi, the spokesman for Fatah in the West Bank. "The prime task of the constitutional court is to monitor laws. By the law, it is a completely independent body and we have full confidence in it."
Abbas's decision comes at a time of worsening splits between Fatah and Hamas and as questions are raised about what will happen when the president steps down or if he were to die in office without a successor.
Abbas took office after the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, and was elected to a four-year term as president in 2005.
But new elections were not held in 2009 and he continues to govern by decree. Parliament has not sat since 2007. In theory, the speaker of parliament, a Hamas member, would take over as president on an interim basis were Abbas to die in office, although Fatah disputes whether that remains constitutional.
While Abbas may have the authority to create the court, which is being established 14 years after the Palestinians drafted a basic law, a form of constitution, some analysts see it as a way of circumventing opposition at a critical time.
"It's a blatant power grab at a time when he knows he can get away with it," said Grant Rumley, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC.
"From Abbas's standpoint, this is his way of both thwarting his rivals in Hamas and securing his Fatah party's hold on the Palestinian Authority once he is gone," Rumley told Reuters.
BLOCK ON RIVALS?
Palestinian commentators also see the court, whose decisions would be binding on the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, as a means of bolstering presidential authority and marginalizing Hamas. All nine members are either Fatah members or seen by Hamas and others as being allied with Fatah.
"It is as if you are confiscating everything and putting all the institutions in your hands," said Hani al-Masri, an unaffiliated political analyst based in Ramallah.
Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in 2006 and seized control in Gaza a year later, saw itself sidestepped during the swearing-in process. Two of the nine members are from Gaza. Fatah said Hamas prevented them from leaving the territory to be sworn in at a ceremony in the West Bank on April 5. So instead they were sworn in via video link on Sunday.
"This is a factional court," said Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas's spokesman, arguing that it gave Abbas the ability to sidestep parliament - if the current one ever sits again - or if a new parliament is eventually elected.
Abbas's legal adviser, Hassan al-Awry, said the court was needed in part because parliament's legal status was in question given the lack of elections.
"It is not a shame if the constitutional court would debate this issue," he told Reuters, adding that the justices on the court were all legal experts and independent. "We want a judicial reference should such an issue be brought up."
Yet Palestinian scholars say the court raises problems. Issam Abdeen, a law professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank, said it would have little check on its authority.
"It can be a lethal weapon if misused," he told Reuters, pointing out that Abbas's political opponents, such as Mohammad Dahlan who now lives in exile, have a new hurdle to clear in efforts to mount legal challenges to his authority.
Rumley, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, regards the court as a potential barrier to reform.
"Rather than reforming his party, preparing for elections, or reactivating the defunct parliament, (Abbas) is creating another judicial body by presidential decree in order to, among other things, approve presidential decrees," he said.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; editing by Luke Baker/Jeremy Gaunt)