Hamas banned from Jerusalem campaigning

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Israel yielded to American pressure yesterday and agreed to let East Jerusalem Arabs vote in the Palestinian parliamentary elections on 25 January. But ministers barred Hamas from campaigning in the disputed city.

Within hours, police arrested Sheikh Mohammed Abu Tir, the number two man on the Hamas list, and two other candidates when they tried to hold a press conference near the al-Aqsa mosque compound. Two organisers were also detained.

Earlier, Sheikh Abu Tir, a graduate of Israeli prisons with a vivid spade of a dyed red beard, claimed in an interview with the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that Hamas's participation in the elections represented a major shift to democratic politics.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, had threatened to postpone the elections if Jerusalem Arabs were not allowed to vote.

But Ghassan Hatib, his Planning Minister, protested that the ban on Hamas played into opposition hands. "This is worse than preventing everybody from campaigning," he said. "This will only increase public sympathy for Hamas."

Despite warnings by both the US and the EU that they would cut aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas joined the government, a weekend poll showed the Islamic movement closing in on Mr Abbas' Fatah. The Bir-Zeit University survey gave Hamas 30 per cent of the vote to 35 for Fatah. A quarter were undecided.

Israel insisted Hamas would have to disarm and stop suicide bombings if it wanted its democratic pretensions to be taken seriously. Mark Regev, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: "Hamas is a terrorist organisation. [It] could not campaign in London, Paris or Berlin because it is on the European list of terrorist organisations."

With Ariel Sharon, Israel's stricken Prime Minister, still showing no signs of waking from his coma, Ehud Olmert was confirmed as acting PM until a general election on 28 March. He is expected to appoint new ministers this week after the resignation of the four remaining right-wing Likud ministers, who will fight his Kadima party from the opposition. Shimon Peres, Labour's elder statesman who defected to Kadima, resigned his Knesset seat so he would be free to seek re-election on the new centre party's list.

Mr Sharon, who suffered a massive stroke on 4 January, had a tracheotomy in Jerusalem's Hadassah hospital to wean him off a respirator. His condition remained critical but stable.

Amid violent clashes between militant settlers and the army in Hebron, Mr Olmert told security forces to act firmly against teenage rioters resisting the evacuation of eight Jewish families from Palestinian-owned houses in the city's Arab market. "The government will not countenance such wild behaviour," Mr Olmert said. "Whoever raises his hand will be punished."

Undaunted, dozens of settlers set fire to Palestinian shops in the market. Lieutenant Ariel Nussbacher complained that Jewish youths gave him a Nazi salute when he tried to stop them beating up Arabs.

Elsewhere on the West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian woman and her 20-year-old son in the village of Roujib. Neighbours said the man had a rifle to protect his car.