Abbas wants election delay

RAMALLAH (AP) — Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas wants to postpone parliamentary elections until November, hoping to recapture some of the popular support his ruling Fateh movement has lost, a spokesman for the Hamas group said Wednesday.
Two Palestinian officials close to Abbas, who is in the US for talks with President George W. Bush, confirmed the Palestinian leader is looking to push back the July 17 vote by four months.

The delay could inflame tensions between Fateh and Hamas, already high over disputed results in a recent round of local elections. Hamas, which is running for the first time in legislative elections, has objected to a delay because it would give Abbas more time to try to score concrete achievements in his faltering reform and peace-making agenda.

Late Wednesday, Egyptian mediators met with Hamas officials to try to solve another election crisis — alleged irregularities in local elections earlier this month. A Hamas spokesman said Hamas and Fateh would meet tomorrow with the Egyptian team — the first time the three sides have sat down together.

Mohammed Ghazal, the Hamas spokesman in the West Bank who reported Abbas’ intentions, said Wednesday that the group continues to object to a postponement.

But with Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to start in mid-August, Hamas might acquiesce to the election delay with little real resistance.

On Wednesday, Israeli opponents of the pullout blocked a main Tel Aviv highway briefly with burning tyres during evening rush hour. Police cleared the road within a few minutes. On May 16, demonstrators blocked dozens of intersections. Some of the protesters arrested then are still in custody.

Fateh’s electoral standing has been hurt by a history of corruption and inefficiency during its exclusive rule of the Palestinian Authority during its 11-year existence.

Hamas, which won one-third of the municipalities contested in May 4 local elections, is expected to make serious inroads into Fateh’s backing, possibly gaining a majority of the legislature.

Abbas’ postponement of the election has been long expected, even though his official position has been to support a July 17 vote. The Palestinian Election Commission flagged an official postponement Monday when it said it needed more time to prepare for the vote.

Ghazal said Abbas, in return for the delay, has promised Hamas to back an amendment to the election system that could favour the group. Hamas wants half of the legislators to be chosen in district elections and half from party slates, a system Abbas agreed to earlier this year when he brokered an informal Hamas truce with Israel.

Meanwhile, a senior Israeli military official said he expects Israel and the Palestinians to start coordinating the Gaza withdrawal in the next few weeks.

A high-level meeting by the two sides ended Monday without agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in speech in the United States on Tuesday, urged Abbas to work with Israel on the pullout.

Both sides are afraid that without proper preparations, Palestinian fighters will open fire on Jewish settlers and soldiers during the evacuation.

The military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, said Israel expects the Palestinian security services to deploy in large numbers in places where armed groups can launch mortar shells or rockets. And he said the military assumes that Lebanese Hizbollah, which “have hundreds of West Bank fighters on its payroll,” would try to interfere in the evacuation of four West Bank settlements.

With the evacuation less than three months away, few of the Gaza settlers have agreed to leave.

Jewish settlers barred a senior Sharon aide from entering the Gaza settlement of Kfar Darom to discuss the withdrawal. The aide, Ilan Cohen, proceeded to other settlements, where he spoke to settlers.

The military official said security forces would not tolerate violence by the settlers and would immediately imprison offenders. He estimated 200 to 250 pullout opponents have moved to Gaza recently to bolster the resistance.

Also Wednesday, Amnesty International accused Israeli soldiers operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including unlawful killings, torture, destruction of property, obstruction of medical assistance and targeting of medical personnel.

The human rights group also said in its annual report released Wednesday that the deliberate targeting of civilians by Palestinian armed groups constituted crimes against humanity.

According to Amnesty’s tally, Israeli forces killed more than 700 Palestinians in 2004, including 150 children. It said armed Palestinian groups killed 109 Israelis that year, including 67 civilians, eight of them children.

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