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Abbas' aides talk about delaying elections
Updated: 2005-12-22 08:49

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' aides talked openly Wednesday about the possibility of postponing Jan. 25 parliament elections that pit the ruling Fatah Party against the increasingly popular Islamic militant group Hamas.

The aides cited Israel's threat to ban voting in Jerusalem for the potential delay, denying that was merely an excuse to put off what could be a trouncing at the polls. Postponing or even canceling the elections could serve the interests of Abbas and the Israelis, but both sides dismissed speculation they were in this together.

Abbas' aides talk about delaying elections
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends Friday prayers in the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 16, 2005. [Reuters]
In Gaza, Palestinian gunmen released two teachers, a Dutchman and an Australian, shortly after abducting them on their way to school Wednesday — the latest in a rash of bloodless kidnappings that have helped undermine Abbas.

Hamas, entering a parliamentary race for the first time, expects to capitalize on Abbas' inept rule and the 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 Hamas, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis.

Abbas' aides talk about delaying elections
Palestinians hurl stones at an Israeli army vehicle during an Israeli incursion searching for militants in the West Bank town of Jenin Wednesday Dec. 21, 2005. [AP]
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 elections.

Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told The Associated Press no final decision had been made.

But 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."

Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath said that would be enough reason to call off the vote. "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 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.

Abbas' aides talk about delaying elections
Dutch Hendrik Taatgen, centre, the school principal of the American International School in Beit Lahia, in northern Gaza, and his Australian deputy, Brian Ambrosio, right, are seen after their release inside the Gaza City office of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005.[AP]
Speaking to the AP 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 elections, it would be an admission that Hamas would win.

Abbas already postponed elections once, from July 17, a date that coincided with Israel's Gaza pullout.

Visiting Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman hinted Wednesday that the elections might be delayed. After he met Abbas, his aides said a decision would be made in about week.

Hamas' strength has been bolstered by Abbas' inability to take control of the streets of Gaza following Israel's summer pullout.

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.

The armed men stopped the foreigners' blue Honda Civic about a mile from the school, forced them out of their car, bundled them into another vehicle and drove off, witnesses said.

A claim of responsibility, faxed to the AP, called for the release of Ahmed Saadat, a leader of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who is held under foreign supervision in a Palestinian prison in the West Bank town of Jericho. Saadat is in custody for the PFLP's assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001.

The hostages were released shortly after the fax arrived.

In the West Bank, a local Hamas leader in the town of Jenin was killed during a shootout with Israeli troops who were trying to arrest him, the militant group and witnesses said. The military confirmed it was operating in Jenin.

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