Israel threatens Palestinian vote

Arabs in East Jerusalem could be barred from polls if Hamas takes part in election

December 22, 2005|By KEN ELLINGWOOD | KEN ELLINGWOOD,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Israeli officials threatened yesterday to prohibit balloting in East Jerusalem during Palestinian parliamentary elections, a move that Palestinian leaders warned could imperil the Jan. 25 vote and lead to civil unrest.

The officials said voting would probably not be allowed in Arab neighborhoods that have taken part in previous Palestinian balloting if candidates from the Islamic group Hamas compete. Hamas, whose military wing has carried out dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks against Israel during five years of conflict, is running for seats in the Palestinian parliament for the first time.

Israel has maintained for months that Hamas, classified by the United States as a terrorist group, should be kept out of the campaign unless it disarms and disavows violence. Israeli officials said yesterday that allowing votes to be cast in East Jerusalem would be tantamount to helping Hamas achieve power.

"There's no reason in the world why we should provide the facilities for people to vote for an organization that calls for the destruction of Israel and will undermine the political process," said Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Gissin said Israel would not interfere with balloting in the West Bank. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip during the summer.

He said a final decision has not been made on how East Jerusalem voters might be able to cast their ballots. One idea, Gissin said, would be to allow them to vote instead in nearby Arab neighborhoods in the West Bank.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman played down the apparent standoff.

"It is an issue that the Palestinians and the Israelis have worked through before and I would expect that they would work through once again," said spokesman Sean McCormack.

Palestinian leaders insist that balloting must be held in East Jerusalem, home to about 220,000 Palestinians. The leaders say the elections are an internal matter and that Hamas has a right to run. They rejected a nonbinding resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week saying that Hamas should not be allowed to take part.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was considering how to respond to the East Jerusalem voting ban. Erekat said a decision to cancel or delay the balloting could anger Hamas, which has demanded that the election take place as scheduled, and spark internal chaos.

Erekat said Abbas - who leads Hamas' chief electoral rival, Fatah - would consult with Hamas and other Palestinian parties before deciding whether to postpone.

"This will create more problems than it will solve. This will push Palestinians to the Somalia model: civil war," he said.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East war, but the Palestinians claim it as the capital of a future state.

Abbas has been pressured by senior Fatah figures to put off the election out of concern that Hamas might win. Fatah, long the dominant Palestinian movement, is beset by internal rifts and widespread public disenchantment over years of corruption and mismanagement under Yasser Arafat, who died last year.

Last week, a group of the movement's self-styled young guard defied the Fatah leadership by submitting its own list of candidates.

A new opinion poll found that half the Israelis surveyed favor negotiating with Hamas if needed to make peace with the Palestinians. A slightly smaller share, 47 percent, was opposed, according to the poll, run jointly by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Last week, a poll by the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot found Israelis evenly divided on whether Israel should cede East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as part of a peace agreement.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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