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News Analysis: As Israel and PLO Talk on Elections, Hamas Says It Might Put Up Own Slate

As Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization opened new talks in Cairo this week concerning Palestinian elections, the fundamentalist Hamas movement has injected new questions into the equation by announcing it will participate in the elections under certain conditions.

PLO sources say they are confident of a sweeping victory for Chairman Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Authority, and his propeace A1 Fatah faction.

But they expect that if the fundamentalists do participate in the election, groups such as Hamas could win up to 40 percent of the votes in Gaza, and a lower, but still substantial, percentage in the West Bank.

A Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniye, told Israeli and Palestinian newspapers over the weekend that his organization will run a slate of candidates in the elections if the voting is for a Palestinian legislature rather than an executive body.

The question of what kind of body is to be elected in the elections is one of the central issues of dispute between Israel and the PLO, which began meeting in Cairo on Monday to discuss the elections.

According to the Declaration of Principles signed by the two parties in Washington in September 1993, the Palestinians will vote for a “council” that is to be “empowered to legislate, in accordance with the Interim Agreement, within all authorities transferred to it.”

The formulation was left intentionally vague, since the parties at the secret Oslo talks that led to the signing of the self-rule agreement could not agree on the composition of the “council.”

The Palestinian negotiators envisaged a quasi-parliament of 100 delegates; the Israelis, in turn, wanted a small Cabinet-like group of department heads.

A MAYOR PROBLEM LOOMING FOR CAIRO TALKS

This fundamental difference in viewpoints has not been narrowed since last year’s signing, and it looms as a major problem for the Cairo talks.

Another issue left unresolved since last year is whether Palestinians living in eastern Jerusalem will be eligible to run as candidates and to vote.

The Declaration of Principles left this issue vague as well, noting that the Palestinians of Jerusalem “who live there will have the right to participate in the election process, according to an agreement between the two sides.”

That “agreement” still needs to be worked out in Cairo. Israel’s position is that Palestinians from eastern Jerusalem can vote — only outside the city limits — but cannot run as candidates. The Palestinian leadership, however, believes that eastern Jerusalem should be considered part of the West Bank and Gaza autonomous areas for the purposes of the election.

The two sides also need to resolve the issue of Israeli redeployment from the West Bank.

While the Declaration of Principles specifically states that this is a matter for Israel to decide for itself, the document specifies that the redeployment must occur no later than the eve of the election, and that in redeploying, “Israel will be guided by the principle that its military forces should be redeployed outside populated areas.”

The apparent purpose of this principle is to remove Israeli troops from the vicinity of Palestinian polling stations so that the elections are conducted in a non-occupation atmosphere.

It was with this in mind that the Declaration of Principles stated that the election be held “under agreed supervision and international observations, while the Palestinian police force will ensure public order.”

Both the extent of the redeployment and the nature of the supervisory and observer forces remain to be negotiated in Cairo.

Ehud Barak, Israel Defense Force chief of staff, has already said the army cannot pull out of any area unless — and until — it is confident that there is an efficient force to take its place.

The PLO has drafted a detailed proposal on methods for holding the election that is being presented to Israeli negotiators this week.

The PLO plan provides for hundreds of small polling stations throughout the West Bank and Gaza, with no more than 1,000 voters casting their ballots at any one station.

The plan also calls for three weeks of campaigning, with all parties to enjoy fair access to Palestinian radio and television and to the Palestinian press.

JIHAD: ‘NEVER PARTICIPATE IN SUCH ELECTIONS’

While Israel and the PLO thrash out the issues surrounding the elections, Hamas sits in the wings, a potential participant in the voting.

The Hamas leader, Haniye, said categorically in his interviews that Hamas would boycott the election if it was merely for an executive body, since this would be bowing to Israel’s wishes.

But if the purpose of the election were to create a legislature, Haniye said that Hamas would take part. Its goal, he said, would be to unite all Islamic forces in a single political movement.

This goal was quickly contradicted, however, by another, smaller Islamic fundamentalist organization in the territories, Islamic Jihad, which declared that it would boycott any election held as a result of Israeli-PLO negotiations.

“We will never participate in such elections,” a Jihad leader declared, “even if they are held in a fair and democratic atmosphere.”

The same arguments over whether to take part in the election are said to be raging within the secular opposition movements in the territories, namely, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Democratic Front leader Nayef Hawatmeh, who operates from Damascus, insists the only democratic vote would include all Palestinians — in the diaspora as well as in the territories.

Meanwhile, a polling organization based in Nablus reported over the weekend that some 78 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip support the holding of elections. Some 65 percent said they would take part in the voting, while 20 percent said they would not.

Questioned about political preferences, 39 percent favored Fatah, 14 percent Hamas, and another 7 percent supported other Islamic groups.

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