06:52:14 EST Dec 21, 2005
JERUSALEM (AP) - The Palestinian Authority will cancel Jan. 25 parliamentary elections if Israel goes ahead with its plan to bar Palestinians from voting in disputed Jerusalem, a senior Palestinian official said Wednesday.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has been under growing pressure from his Fatah Party to postpone the vote, amid concerns about the growing political clout of the Islamic militant group Hamas. But Palestinian officials denied Abbas was using Israel's threat as a pretext to call off the vote.
Two senior Israeli government officials said Wednesday that Israel would not let Palestinians vote in Jerusalem because it objected to Hamas' participation in the race. Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction, is running for the first time in parliamentary elections, and poses a strong challenge to Abbas, a moderate.
"There will be no voting in sovereign Jerusalem," one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss policy with the media. "Our role is not to help Hamas get elected - certainly not in sovereign Jerusalem."
Another official said Israel has notified European election observers of its decision.
Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath said barring the vote in Jerusalem would be grounds for calling off the ballot. "If the Israelis insist on not allowing us to conduct the elections in Jerusalem, then there will be no elections at all," Shaath said.
While ostensibly a minor procedural matter, voting in Jerusalem is a 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.
The Palestinian Authority will try to bring international pressure to bear on Israel to reconsider, Shaath said. "But if we don't succeed, this will mean there will be no elections. For us, Jerusalem is more important than any other thing."
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Wednesday that the group wanted the election held as scheduled, and was counting on Abbas to keep his promise to honour the date.
In previous elections, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem voted by mailing ballots from Jerusalem post offices, a procedure enshrined in interim Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.
The Israeli officials said voting by mail would not be allowed this time, reasoning that the Palestinians aren't abiding by their commitment, under the accords, to bar groups that seek to achieve goals by non-democratic means from participating in elections.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekeat said he sent multiple letters to the Israelis seeking co-ordination on Jerusalem balloting, but hasn't received any response.
"If the Israelis will not allow us to do elections in east Jerusalem . . . it means the Israelis will sabotage the elections," Erekat said. "I know what the Israelis have on their minds. They don't want a partner. They want unilateralism."
Israel carried out its landmark Gaza Strip evacuation unilaterally over the summer after concluding it had no negotiating partner. Palestinians are concerned that Israel might carry out further withdrawals unilaterally and avoid talks on a final peace deal that would yield a Palestinian state.
Erekat denied that Abbas might use Israel's ban on Jerusalem voting as a pretext to postpone the elections and buy time to strengthen his ruling Fatah movement, whose negative image among the Palestinian public was reinforced by chaos during recent primaries.
"If these elections don't take place, it will be a catastrophe for the Palestinians," he said. "The Palestinians will go to the Somalia model. They will be fighting from street to street."
In other news, Palestinian gunmen abducted a Dutch school principal, Hendrik Taatgen, and his Australian deputy, Brian Ambrosio, on Wednesday as they drove to work at a private American school north of Gaza City, witnesses and Palestinian security officials said.
The armed men stopped the foreigners' blue Honda Civic about two kilometres from the school, forced them out of their car, bundled them into another vehicle and drove off, witnesses said.
The foreigners' car was later found locked and parked on the side of the road.
Militant groups have kidnapped foreigners in increasingly chaotic Gaza recently, usually as bargaining chips to get relatives released from Palestinian prisons, secure jobs from the Palestinian Authority or settle personal scores. The kidnappings have all been brief, and the hostages have all been released unharmed.
© The Canadian Press, 2005
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