Palestinian elections set for January 25

GAZA CITY (AP) — Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas signed a decree Saturday appropriating Jewish settlement land for public use once Israel’s evacuation of Gaza is complete, and announced that overdue Palestinian legislative elections will be held January 25.

Both measures are meant to ease suspicions among Abbas’ political rivals over the intentions of the Palestinian Authority and encourage them to hold their fire during the pullout.

The withdrawal paused for the Jewish Sabbath, but military officials said they planned to speedup next week’s timetable. The last Gaza settlements should be empty by Monday, and the army will start moving against two settlements in the northern West Bank on Tuesday.

Military officials said some 2,000 anti-withdrawal protesters had infiltrated into the West Bank settlements, and some were armed. They said police anticipate stiffer resistance than they encountered in Gaza, where the evacuation went swiftly and with relatively little violence.

In Gaza, “we were prepared for the gravest scenarios,” said police chief Uri Bar Lev. “We feared people would commit suicide. We feared a situation in which people would use live weapons,” he said, crediting settler leaders for helping contain potential trouble.

Officials said the army was trying to stem the flow of protesters into the area, though the terrain was open and difficult to control.

Abbas’ proclamation seizing control of the evacuated Gaza land was meant to assert the authority of the Palestinian government in an area still largely dominated by political warlords, and where corruption among officials is deeply ingrained. Many Palestinians feared prime land could end up in the hands of senior officials of the ruling Fateh organisation.

The 21 settlements, with 8,500 residents, and several military installations controlled about 20 per cent of the land in the narrow coastal strip that also is home to 1.3 million Palestinians. About 9 per cent of the land expropriated by Israel is claimed by private Palestinian owners, who will have an opportunity to reclaim their property, while the rest had been in the public domain.

As Abbas gave his decree, dozens of masked men from the Hamas movement briefly took over the central square of Gaza City in a show of defiance against the president, and made clear the factions had no intention of disarming.

“We will keep all our weapons, and our military equipment, and we will develop it further, God willing. Our battle with the enemy is long and will continue,” said a spokesman known only as Abu Obaideh.

He said there would be no letup in the campaign to drive Israel out of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Hamas will not stand by silently while “our land remains occupied and our holy sites are desecrated,” he said. “We will work to strengthen the resistance in these areas, for the resistance is the only thing that will kick them out.” Confirmation of the legislative elections date was a gesture to Hamas, which made a strong showing in several municipal elections earlier this year. Despite Israeli demands that he disarms them, Abbas has been trying to co-opt the factions instead. Giving them chances at the ballot box is a key part of that initiative.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said Abbas must rein in both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, dismantling what he calls the “terrorist infrastructure,” as a precondition for resuming the US-sponsored peace process known as the “roadmap.” But Abbas reiterated Saturday that Israel must halt the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, also an essential element of the roadmap.

The factions have kept up low-level attacks, but relative calm has prevailed in Gaza since the pullout began last Monday.

On Saturday, three rockets or mortars fell near settlement perimeters, but caused no damage or casualties. On Friday, two fighters were wounded when explosives they were carrying detonated prematurely.

Hamas’ political leaders welcomed the announcement. Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, said his group was ready for its first national contest.

“We have prepared our list of candidates, and we have even reserved a seat for the Christian minorities,” Yousef said.

The elections were initially to have been held in July, but were postponed because of Sharon’s Gaza pullout plan.

The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, had said last week that elections would be held January 21, based on a decision by the PLO executive committee. However, officials went back to the calendar and changed the date so it would not interfere with a major Muslim holiday and the pilgrimage to Mecca during that period, Erekat said.

On Sunday, Israel was expected to complete the evacuation of the settlements of Katif, Atzmona, and Elei Sinai, and remove a few infiltrators in Slav. Residents of Netzarim, the final settlement, have pledged to leave quietly on Monday.

That leaves troops free to turn their attention to the West Bank settlements of Sanur and Homesh, where opponents of the withdrawal were waiting to mount a determined resistance to the eviction.

Setters already have left two other West Bank settlements, Ganim and Kadim, on their own.

Meanwhile, bulldozers will resume the task of breaking up private homes in the Gaza settlements in preparation for turning the property over to the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinians have said the luxury villas were inappropriate for their needs, and they intended to build multistorey apartments to help ease the overcrowding in Gaza’s cities.

The first demolitions were on Friday at Kerem Atzmona, an illegal outpost with about 20 flimsy temporary homes that crumbled to rubble with a few blows of an excavator’s shovel.

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