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Palestinian Campaigning Begins Amid Uncertainty

January 04, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — With banners and colorful balloons, candidates opened their campaigns Tuesday for the Palestinian parliament despite uncertainty about whether the Jan. 25 elections would take place as scheduled.

The campaign's first day provided a sampling of the tensions, from a dispute with Israel over allowing residents to vote in East Jerusalem to chaos in the Gaza Strip, that have led some senior Palestinian leaders to urge postponement.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, already facing dissent within his Fatah movement and strong competition from the Islamic militant group Hamas, suggested a day earlier that the vote could be delayed if Israel insisted on barring polling in East Jerusalem.

But leaders of Hamas, which is proving a tough challenger in its first run for legislative seats, on Tuesday reiterated demands that the vote take place as scheduled. Hamas is eager to capitalize on momentum gained in municipal elections, during which it captured a surprising number of local council positions.

Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas spokesman who tops the group's national slate, said a delay would be counterproductive.

"Our brothers in Fatah offered the idea of postponing the elections for different reasons, but Hamas has asserted that delay would just lead to a vacuum," Haniyeh told reporters in Gaza City. "Postponement won't be a solution to the problems."

In the eastern portion of Jerusalem, Israeli police detained the leader of an independent Palestinian party and prevented another candidate from holding a campaign kickoff event.

Mustafa Barghouti, a leftist who heads the Independent Palestine coalition, was detained outside the walled Old City. Israeli police said Barghouti, a West Bank resident, lacked a permit to enter Jerusalem. He was released a few hours later and ordered to stay out of Jerusalem for 30 days, police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said.

The spokesman said police interrupted the second event, by Hanan Ashrawi of the Third Way party, because the gathering violated a ban on Palestinian political activity in Jerusalem under an interim peace agreement.

Later Tuesday, several other candidates and activists were detained near the Old City. Hatem Abdul Qader of Fatah said he and a fellow legislative candidate were beaten by police, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported. Israeli authorities, who said they had detained 11 people throughout the day, denied the charge.

The voting dispute symbolizes the larger battle over East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after the 1967 Middle East War but is claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of a future state.

Israel has allowed voting in East Jerusalem by agreement with the Palestinians, but characterized it as an exception to the prohibition on political activity. Residents cast votes at a handful of local post offices during parliamentary elections in 1996 and for a Palestinian Authority president a year ago.

Israeli officials threatened to forbid such an arrangement this time as long as Hamas is on the ballot. The Islamic group calls for Israel's destruction; its military wing has carried out dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks against Israel since the latest conflict broke out in 2000.

But Israeli officials have given mixed signals, saying they were considering alternatives that would allow East Jerusalem residents to cast ballots. Israel has sought to make clear its objection to participation by Hamas, but does not want to be blamed for delaying the elections.

Palestinian leaders say the elections would carry no legitimacy unless ballots are marked in East Jerusalem, which has 220,000 Palestinian residents but accounted for relatively few votes in last year's presidential race.

Abbas told the satellite television channel Al Jazeera during a visit to Qatar on Monday that if East Jerusalem were barred from voting, "there should be no elections."

U.S. officials have urged the two sides to work out a compromise. The issue is expected to be discussed when two senior U.S. envoys -- Elliot Abrams, a White House national security aide, and David Welch, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs -- meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials this week.

In Washington on Tuesday, a State Department spokesman expressed confidence that the dispute would be resolved.

"The issue of East Jerusalem has come up in previous Palestinian votes, and the Palestinian Authority has been able to work out accommodations with the Israeli government to allow voting for people in that area," spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Some analysts say the Palestinian leadership is seeking a pretext to avoid possible defeat by Hamas. But on Tuesday, Palestinian leaders in the West Bank said they planned to hold the elections as scheduled.

Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath said the vote was "an opportunity to assert that we consider our competitors as our partners in the destiny and the struggle, regardless of the results of the elections."

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