With International Optimism High, Palestinians Set Date for Elections
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With International Optimism High, Palestinians Set Date for Elections

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The Palestinians have leapt into the post-Yasser Arafat era. Just days after Arafat’s death on Nov. 11, a national election was set for Jan. 9, when the 60-day mourning period ends.

The immediate post-Arafat period has been marked by international optimism that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front would now be possible.

But an incident involving gunfire aimed at the entourage of Mahmoud Abbas, the late Palestinian Authority president’s temporary replacement, made clear that, despite hopes for a smooth power transfer after Arafat’s death, tensions over who will lead the Palestinians remained high.

The announcement of the Jan. 9 elections comes as President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed last Friday to redouble efforts to achieve peaceful and democratic Palestinian statehood under the peace “road map.”

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Saturday he intended to meet Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and Abbas in the very near future.

Meanwhile, the United States has called on Israel to withdraw its forces from Palestinian population centers to facilitate elections, The New York Times said. An Israeli official denied that there was pressure from the Bush administration, but said the Jewish state would redeploy troops from some Palestinian areas if the Palestinian Authority shows it is serious about fighting terror.

For now, the West Bank and Gaza have largely fallen quiet — a combined result of mourning, the Ramadan fast and an Israeli decision to cut down military operations to the absolute minimum.

The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Cabinet on Sunday that while Israeli troops enjoyed exemplary cooperation with Palestinian security forces during Arafat’s funeral in Ramallah, terrorist attacks could resume when Ramadan ends Wednesday.

Violence already broke out Sunday, when Associated Press footage showed about 20 men entering the mourning tent where Abbas, Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan and other key Palestinian leaders had come to pay respects.

The gunmen, clad in green, shouted, “Abbas and Dahlan are agents for the Americans.” They then fired into the tent, killing two bodyguards.

For now, though, Palestinian extremist groups are busier jostling for a place in politics.

Hamas called for wider elections during which it could capitalize on its clout among grass-roots Palestinians.

“If the Palestinian Authority is able to hold presidential elections, why not hold general elections as well?” said Abu Zuhri, Hamas spokesman in Gaza.

For now, the ruling Fatah Party looks likely to maintain its grip on power. The faction nominated Abbas as its candidate for the Jan. 9 elections, although no one rules out a run by West Bank Fatah chief Marwan Barghouti, now serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for orchestrating attacks on Israelis.

Barghouti’s influence on the Palestinian street is not lost on Israel, which witnessed him using cell phones smuggled into his prison cell last year to broker temporary cease-fires between the various armed factions.

He is considered sincere about a two-state solution and, at 45, is seen as far more dynamic than the 69-year-old Abbas, who quit last year after a short-lived stint as Palestinian Authority prime minister.

At least one member of the Sharon government said Israel could eventually go as far as freeing Barghouti, as he could help it implement the plan to “disengage” from Gaza and the West Bank next year without creating a power vacuum in which Hamas would thrive.

“As part of a future interim or permanent accord, it appears clear that freeing prisoners — including Barghouti — will be unavoidable,” Interior Minister Avraham Poraz told Israel Radio.

The idea of clemency for Barghouti was dismissed by other Israeli officials. But clemency is not the only way the Fatah firebrand could win early release. In 1997, Israel set free Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was also serving a life sentence, in an effort to mend fences with Jordan after the Mossad botched an attempt on the life of one of the Islamic terror group’s leaders in Amman.

Another divisive issue now being discussed centers on Palestinians living in Jerusalem, many of whom would want to vote in elections for Arafat’s successor. Under the Oslo accords, Israel agreed that eastern Jerusalemites could vote in the West Bank for Palestinian posts but not in the Jewish state’s capital.

The jurisdiction squabble is a deal-breaker for the Sharon government.

“Agreeing to the East Jerusalem Arabs voting for the Palestinian elections in Jerusalem is the first step toward redividing the city,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.

But the Palestinian Authority sees the poll as an opportunity to cement its claim on the city.

“There will be no election without Jerusalem,” said Hatem Abdel Qader, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. “We will contact all international bodies to exert all pressure on Israel to allow the people of Jerusalem to participate.”

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