Israel braces for Hamas dominating Palestinian elections

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, huddled with top military and political officials Sunday to discuss the growing likelihood that Hamas could dominate this week’s Palestinian elections.

The ascendance of Hamas has alarmed Israel, which appears to have been caught off guard by the group’s surging popularity. Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and remains committed to Israel’s destruction.

“What Israel has to do is the big question,” Cabinet Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said before Sunday’s meeting. “We have to think hard and explore all the options.” Israel’s Western allies also have been scrambling to figure out how to deal with Hamas. US officials, on Sunday, confirmed they have been directing money to promote democratic parties in the election, but denied the move was aimed against Hamas.

Best known for its suicide attacks, Hamas has won over the Palestinian public in its first run for the legislature by focusing on domestic concerns, halting government corruption and restoring law and order to the chaotic West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In contrast, the ruling Fateh Party has been unable to shed its corrupt image or overcome infighting. Recent opinion polls show the two movements neck-and-neck ahead of Wednesday’s election.

Olmert met with his Cabinet and later with a smaller group of senior officials to discuss the vote. Participants included the army chief, head of the Shin Bet security agency, and the justice and defence ministers, Olmert’s office said.

Olmert appointed a committee headed by military chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz to monitor the elections and develop a set of recommendations for responding to the election, Olmert’s office said.

While some security officials privately support a dialogue with Hamas, top leaders, including Halutz and Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, say the group must disarm and revoke its charter calling for Israel’s elimination.

“Regarding the elections in the Palestinian authority, there are three options: That Fateh wins, that Hamas wins or anarchy wins. One of these results could put all progress back several years,” Halutz told an academic conference Sunday, apparently referring to Hamas and warning that violence could follow the election.

Commentators said Sunday’s meeting, just days before the vote, reflected a failure by Israel to detect Hamas’ growing popularity, despite its strong performance in Palestinian municipal voting in recent months.

“Their assumption was Fateh will handily win any election,” said Mouin Rabbani, an analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Jordan.

In a televised interview Sunday, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas defended his decision to allow Hamas to run in the election. Abbas has said he hopes Hamas would tame its positions once it formally joins the political system.

But other Fateh officials sent mixed signals over whether they would work with the Islamic group. Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath, a top Fateh official, said Hamas must accept the principle of peace with Israel if it wants to share power.

“With Hamas, it will be very difficult to reach a joint programme,” Shaath added. “We can’t form a coalition with Hamas if it doesn’t agree to this programme.” However, Fateh’s top candidate, jailed Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi, said Sunday that “Hamas will be part and parcel of the Palestinian Authority” after the vote. Barghouthi was interviewed in an Israeli prison by the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera.

With Palestinian elections just three days away, the US and the European Union are still trying to figure out what to do if Hamas ends up dominating the Palestinian parliament.

While supporting Hamas’ right to run in the election, the US and EU both consider Hamas a terrorist group, and both have said millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians could be jeopardised.

“As a matter of policy, we don’t deal with Hamas,” said Stewart Tuttle, the US embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv.

“If Hamas members win seats … we are not going to deal with those individuals.” The US Agency for International Development has used a special $1.9 million budget to promote democratic parties in the Palestinian election, said a US Consulate spokeswoman in Jerusalem, Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm.

She denied that the money, used in part to clean streets, distribute free food and water and to help fund a youth soccer tournament, was used to boost Fateh’s prospects against Hamas.

Behind the scenes, US officials are considering the possibility of distinguishing between Hamas legislators tied to violence and those who are not — a position Israel rejects. European diplomats said they would only decide what to do after election results are in.

Palestinian officials said security forces will begin a mass deployment Monday to ensure order during the election.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been plagued by a wave of chaos and lawlessness in recent months, and some armed groups have threatened to disrupt the voting.

Interior Minister Nasser Yousef said he gave “tough orders” to his forces “to stop any display of arms during the election day.” Visiting election commission offices on Sunday, Abbas was resolute. “Orders have been issued to security forces to strike with an iron fist against anyone who would try to sabotage this election,” he said.

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