Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Monday that he would hold parliamentary elections on Jan. 25 as scheduled after he received U.S. assurances that Arab residents of east Jerusalem will be allowed to vote in the city.
Abbas’ announcement alleviated some fears that he was planning to call off the vote under pressure from members of his Fatah party concerned that the popular Hamas militant group would embarrass Fatah at the polls.
Abbas said Monday that the ongoing chaos in Gaza — much of it caused by Fatah-affiliated militants — is aimed at scuttling the elections, and he told his security forces to protect that “democratic day even with force.”
However, Abbas’ interior minister, Nasser Yousef, warned that he will not be able to secure polling stations from gunmen trying to disrupt the election.
Abbas had previously said he would cancel the vote if Israel followed through on its threats to prevent Palestinians in east Jerusalem from voting. Israel is leery of letting Palestinians vote in Jerusalem, seeing it as a threat to its claim to the city, which both sides say is their capital.
During the 1996 Palestinian parliament election, and again a year ago when Abbas was elected to succeed the late Yasser Arafat, the two sides agreed that Palestinian residents could cast absentee ballots at Jerusalem post offices. But Israel had threatened to cancel that compromise this year because of the participation of Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel and is responsible for scores of deadly attacks against Israelis in recent years.
Abbas: Rice, Bush confirmed voting in Jerusalem
In an address carried live on Palestine TV, Abbas said he spoke to several U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who gave him assurances that Israel would allow voting in Jerusalem. Abbas said he also received a message Monday from President Bush.
“The elections will proceed and God willing take place on time,” Abbas said.
Israel said Monday that it was reversing its ban on letting Palestinian politicians campaign in Jerusalem — though Hamas would still be barred — but Israeli officials said they had not reached agreement yet on allowing voting in the city.
“We want to reach an agreement under which Palestinians living in Jerusalem who want to vote in the elections can, and at the same time ensure that we don’t give legitimacy to any terrorist group,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said two U.S. envoys would travel to the region Tuesday to smooth out arrangements for the elections and other security issues.
With the campaigning ban lifted, candidates distributed leaflets Monday and put up posters in east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.
“We are determined to break any Israeli attempt to hold back this national right,” said Qais Abu Leila, a candidate from Jerusalem.
Ahmed Atoun, a Hamas candidate in Jerusalem, said Israel has no business interfering. “The Palestinian people want to elect their representatives. Let the ballot boxes decide,” he said
Fatah, which is viewed as riddled with corruption, is facing a serious challenge from Hamas, which is participating in parliamentary elections for the first time and has cultivated a corruption-free image.
Abbas is also struggling with increasing chaos in Gaza, where gunmen, mostly from groups affiliated with Fatah, have stormed government offices, taken hostages and even smashed through the border wall with Egypt.