The US administration moved yesterday to ensure Palestinian parliamentary elections went ahead on 25 January despite pressure from Israeli and Palestinian political circles for a delay.
Fatah and Hamas, the main election rivals, have formally launched their three-week campaigns, with Fatah presenting a new candidates' list designed to overcome the divisions in the organisation. Two independent groups which could hold the balance of power have also begun campaigning.
The campaigns were launched less than 24 hours after Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, said he might be forced to postpone the elections if Israel carried out its threat to bar voting in East Jerusalem in protest at the participation of Hamas. Although many other Palestinian officials have proposed such a delay, Mr Abbas had not personally countenanced the possibility before in public.
A White House spokesman made it clear meanwhile that President Bush wanted the elections to go ahead as scheduled, and for voting to take place in East Jerusalem. Mr Bush saw the elections as a step forward in his vision of a two-state solution to the conflict, the spokesman said.
A further threat to the timetable is the security of European Union election monitors in Gaza, which was explicitly threatened in the video released by the kidnappers of the British human rights worker Kate Burton and her parents before the family were freed on Saturday.
Following yesterday's arrest of a suspect in the kidnappings, 20 Palestinian gunmen stormed a government office in Rafah in protest at his detention. The men, from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed wing of the mainstream Fatah movement, forced their way inside the Interior Ministry and demanded the release of their colleague. The office was empty at the time and no one was injured.
Mathias Eick, a spokesman for the EU monitors, said the situation was being "watched very closely" but the first monitors had been deployed on schedule.
Israeli officials repeated yesterday that no decision had yet been made to bar voting in East Jerusalem but restated their opposition to Hamas's participation. If the threat is carried out, it will be a break with precedents set in the 1996 parliamentary and 2005 presidential elections, in which voting took place in Jerusalem post offices.
Gideon Meir, the deputy director general of Israel's foreign ministry, said Hamas, as well as being a "terrorist organisation" and seeking the elimination of Israel, was also "an existential threat to the Palestinian Authority", which is pledged to seek a negotiated two-state solution.
Israel regards itself as the sovereign power in occupied Arab East Jerusalem and argues that it allowed voting in the previous two elections as a favour to boost the peace process but sees itself under no obligation to do so if Hamas is participating in the elections.
Posing a question which is exercising several Western governments, a senior Israeli official said last night: "What are the international community going to do if Hamas wins the election? Are they going to deal with them when several countries proscribe Hamas as a terrorist organisation?"
However, Fatah's chances of defeating Hamas were probably boosted by a deal struck last week between the "young" and "old" guards of Fatah on a new unified candidates' list, headed by the popular imprisoned Fatah activist Marwan Barghouti. The most recent poll from the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research shows Fatah on 43 per cent in the contest between the national lists against 25 per cent for Hamas.
Hamas has made clear its opposition to what would be a second postponement of the polls. In what may be a hint that Hamas's abstention from militant violence in recent months could end if the polls are postponed, the leading member of Hamas's national candidates' list, Ismael Haniya, warned: "We have told them [Fatah] that postponing the election will lead to a vacuum and to a dark future."
* An Israeli television news report claimed that police have evidence that the family of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, received $3m (£1.7m) in bribes from an Austrian businessman, in a continuing investigation into illegal campaign contributions.
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