Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ aides talked openly Wednesday about the possibility of postponing Jan. 25 parliament elections, citing Israel’s threat to ban voting in Jerusalem, and denied they are simply grasping a convenient excuse to put off what could be a trouncing by the Islamic militant Hamas.
In Gaza, Palestinian gunmen released two foreign teachers, a Dutchman and an Australian, shortly after abducting them on their way to school on Wednesday - the latest in a rash of brief and bloodless kidnappings that have helped undermine Abbas’ rule.
Postponing or even canceling the Jan. 25 Palestinian parliamentary election could serve the interests of Abbas and the Israelis, but both sides dismissed speculation that they were in this together.
Hamas, entering a parliamentary race for the first time, expects to capitalize on Abbas’ inept rule and internal bickering that has split his Fatah Party. Israel is alarmed at the possibility that Hamas could do well in the voting or even win. Both would welcome a way to reduce the influence of the Islamic movement, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis.
Israeli officials said that unlike past elections, the 200,000 Palestinians who live in east Jerusalem would not be allowed to vote - part of Israel’s objection to Hamas taking part in the election.
Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told The Associated Press that no final decision has been made, but Israel hotly opposes Hamas participation in the election.
Gissin said allowing Palestinians to vote in Jerusalem post offices for parliamentary elections in 1996 and again this year, when Abbas was elected to succeed the late Yasser Arafat, were exceptions to the rule banning Palestinian political activity in Jerusalem.
“The situation today is totally different,” Gissin said, citing Hamas participation. “We don’t want any political activity with voting for Hamas in east Jerusalem.”
Hamas’ strength bolstered by Abbas’ weakness
Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath said that would be enough reason to call it off. “If the Israelis insist on not allowing us to conduct the elections in Jerusalem, then there will be no elections at all,” Shaath said.
Gissin denied working together with Abbas to postpone the election. “It’s up to the Palestinian Authority,” h said.
Also, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat denied that Abbas might use Israel’s ban on Jerusalem voting as a pretext to buy time.
While ostensibly a minor procedural matter, voting in Jerusalem is of great symbolic importance for Israel and the Palestinians, as a measure of claims to the eastern sector.
The Palestinians want to establish their capital in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War and later annexed to its capital.
Speaking to The Associated Press from Beirut, senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan said the Jerusalem issue could be resolved in a “Compromise among Palestinian factions rather than postponing elections.”
He said if Abbas puts off the election, it would be an admission that Hamas would win.
Abbas already postponed elections once, from July 17, a date that clashed with Israel’s Gaza pullout. Visiting Egyptian intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman hinted Wednesday that the elections might be put off. After he met Abbas, his aides said a decision would be made in about week.
Hamas’ strength has been bolstered by Abbas’ weakness, demonstrated by his inability to take control of the streets of Gaza following Israel’s summer pullout. There was another example on Wednesday. Palestinian gunmen briefly abducted Dutch school principal Hendrik Taatgen and his Australian deputy, Brian Ambrosio, as they drove to work at the American International School near Gaza City.