RAMALLAH - Palestinian leaders will hold their first congress in nearly 20 years on September 15-16, an official said Thursday, after president Mahmud Abbas announced his resignation as head of a top executive body.

The meeting of the Palestine National Council (PNC), a congress representing those in the Palestinian territories and the diaspora, will take place in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“It has been decided to ask the Palestine National Council to convene for a session on the upcoming 15th and 16th September in Ramallah,” senior Palestinian official Azzam al-Ahmad told AFP.

“The council’s agenda includes electing a new executive committee for the (Palestine Liberation Organisation).”

Ahmad said the congress would also discuss the stalemate in peace talks with Israel, among other issues.

Abbas’s allies say his recent moves are part of efforts to inject new blood in the Palestinian leadership.

Critics, however, argue that Abbas is manoeuvring to empower his allies and marginalise opponents ahead of the 80-year-old’s eventual retirement.

Abbas’s Fatah party and Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, remain deeply divided.

Separate, indirect contacts are said to have occurred recently between Israel and Hamas on a long-term truce.

Abbas resigned last week as head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Executive Committee in a bid to force new elections for the top body.

His resignation along with a number of others from the 18-member committee will only take effect with a meeting of the PNC.

Hamas belongs to neither the PLO nor the 740-member PNC, the top legislative body of the Palestinians which has not met since 1996.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called on Palestinian factions to boycott the congress, which he labelled a “farce”.

He said in a statement that the congress represented “an insistence on acting unilaterally”.