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by Fawzia Sheikh

Israel, Palestine Peace Pivots On What Sharon Will Do In 2006

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- The January 25 parliamentary elections in the Palestinian areas are fraught by a combination of lawlessness in the region, complaints about Israeli interference in the electoral process, and the spectre that controversial militant group Hamas may win in the polls.

The election will take place in Palestinian areas in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

This is the first political contest following last August's removal of Israeli settlements in Gaza that, in part, has culminated in chaos. Armed gangs of young men, who observers describe as unprepared psychologically to contend with life following decades of occupation, have kidnapped several foreigners over the last few months.

Palestinian political parties and local non-governmental organizations alike criticize restrictions they say the Israeli government has imposed for weeks. The right of Palestinians living in Arab east Jerusalem to vote through an absentee-ballot system through post offices is one such issue. It was permitted only last week.

"They are still not allowing most Palestinians in east Jerusalem to vote," Sreemati Mitter, director of the media and information program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy in Jerusalem told IPS.

According to the Central Elections Commission-Palestine, 6,300 are eligible to vote within Jerusalem, but an estimated 109,000 Palestinians residing in the city must vote outside the city limits. In all about 1.5 million Palestinians may cast a ballot.

The Israeli government has said all Palestinian Jerusalemites who have a local address, an identity card and are eligible under Palestinian law are able to vote.

Joseph Torfstein, senior analyst at the center for political research in the ministry of foreign affairs told IPS that the number of people allowed to vote inside the city arises from those who voted in post offices during municipal elections held nine years ago. Many more voted in nearby villages.

"There is a problem of deciding who is an eligible voter," added Torfstein. He said registration of the population is not up to date, as some Jerusalem voters reside abroad and others have returned but are not full-fledged citizens.

Mitter predicted election-day problems even though Israeli authorities have agreed to ease travel restrictions at checkpoints. Voters will have to negotiate the concrete security perimeter that Israel is building to thwart terrorist attacks.

The post office voter centers, moreover, are manned by local staff, not authorized elections commission staff. "There is room for all sorts of confusion," Mitter said.

The lack of freedom of movement for candidates traveling from Jerusalem to Gaza is also among protesters' litany of complaints. Israel has prevented or detained Hamas candidates and those of other political parties, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and some independents, says Renad Qubbaj, coordinator of the Palestinian Non-governmental Organization Network in Ramallah.

Other NGOs report that parties like the ruling Fatah have not been harassed.

"The policy of the Israeli government is the participation of the Hamas movement in elections is illegal because of the Oslo Agreement. The Oslo Agreement is the legal basis of the Palestinian Authority," said Torfstein. Only Hamas is being targeted, he said. "No party which advocates violence should participate in the Palestinian Authority or in elections or anything of that kind."

A few months ago, Torfstein said, Israelis and Palestinians signed an agreement governing passage between the Gaza Strip and West Bank. But he said Israel fears organizations advocating violence will be able to move freely to the West Bank.

Critics also say that the Israeli government has until recent days disallowed posters and billboards belonging to political groups because historically the state barred political activity in east Jerusalem. Torfstein, however, said non-Hamas material was likely to have been removed by Israeli police who could not understand Arabic and did not realise it was legal.

This year's parliamentary poll, meanwhile, has been marked by a fierce struggle between Hamas and Fatah. This is the first high-level election in which Hamas is participating. The remaining parties have been overshadowed on the campaign trail.

The two main political groups are running a tight race, the outcome of which deeply concerns Israel and other foreign powers, as Hamas's political charter calls for the destruction of the state of Israel.

Mitter described Hamas's election campaign, which is backed by respectable, moderate figures such as academics, as focused on a history of building social and charitable networks. She said Hamas is also against corruption, which has long marred Fatah's record of governance.

Hamas also wants to strengthen a judicial system which has resulted in a breakdown of economic, social and security structures in Palestine.

But Hamas is an ultra-religious party that makes many liberal-minded Palestinians uncomfortable.

"It would be scary as an individual, as a person, as woman," said local resident Qubbaj of a Hamas victory. "We know they have kind of a conservative social agenda that I would oppose." A Hamas victory, she said may include interference with women's education, work, family life and freedom of dress.

In contrast, Fatah is non-religious, renounces terror, recognizes Israel and believes in the peace process, said Torfstein. He said Fatah's election campaign material, which features former leader Yasser Arafat's photo, subtly warns voters that electing Hamas will spell the Islamization of Palestine, the elimination of international assistance, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and an end to relations with Israel. The ruling Fatah, some of whose leaders wanted to postpone elections, is in the midst of a power struggle between the old guard of Arafat's cronies and young up-and-comers. Its internal weakness has bred militant groups that are hard to reign in, Qubbaj said.

The Israeli government fears that even a nominal Hamas triumph will mean trouble for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

"Israel will not deal with any Hamas figure," said Torfstein. "Democracy will fade away."

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Albion Monitor   January 24, 2006   (

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