Israel has significantly escalated its campaign against Hamas's participation in next month's Palestinian legislative elections by threatening to prevent voters going to the polls in East Jerusalem.
The threat could bring Israel into sharp conflict with the international community by adding to the already intense pressure on Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, to postpone the elections in the face of Hamas's strong electoral performance over Fatah, the dominant but deeply divided faction running the Palestinian Authority.
As senior Palestinian officials strongly condemned the threat last night, Nabil Shaath, the PA's information minister, declared: "If the Israelis insist on not allowing us to conduct the elections in Jerusalem,there will be no elections at all."
Mr Abbas has been strongly resisting pressure to postpone the elections, but Mr Shaath's declaration may reflect the views of senior "old guard" Fatah officials who could press for elections to be postponed partly because they fear competition from Hamas and a "young guard" led by the jailed Fatah activist Marwan Barghouti.
But Mr Shaath acknowledged that a postponement would need agreement of all the factions. Hamas is bitterly opposed to any further delay.
In the last Legislative Council elections, in 1996, and in the presidential elections in 2005, some of the 120,000 eligible East Jerusalem voters were allowed to cast their ballots in Israeli post offices there, which Israel, unlike the international community, regards as its own territory. Others were obliged to travel outside the city to vote in the West Bank.
Mr Abbas is thought to believe beating Hamas in relatively unfettered elections is his best chance of re-legitimising his leadership. But Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, already under pressure by right-wing claims that he is prepared to "divide Jerusalem", will be under powerful Israeli electoral pressure to disallow balloting in the city.
Senior Israeli officials were at pains last night to stress that no final decision had been taken on balloting in East Jerusalem, while acknowledging a strong possibility that the threat would be implemented.
The chief spokesman for Mr Sharon, Asaf Shariv, said: "Israel rejects the participation of Hamas in the elections everywhere ... The official position of Israel concerning the elections in East Jerusalem is not yet formulated." Earlier Raanan Gissin, the foreign press spokesman, said the Oslo accords prohibited Palestinian political activity in East Jerusalem, but that Israel had made "an exception" in the previous two elections in the hope that it "would be supportive of the peace process", which would not be repeated this time.
Mr Gissin said: "There is no reason why we will provide accesses to balloting for people to vote for an organisation which calls for the destruction of the state of Israel ... The only way we would - probably - consider allowing these elections to take place in East Jerusalem is if ... Hamas abolished the covenant calling for the destruction of the Israel and it was totally disarmed."
Omar Suleiman, the influential Egyptian Intelligence Chief, reportedly told Israeli ministers yesterday Egypt wanted to the polls to go ahead on schedule.Reuse content