Palestinians take step toward elections, unity

AP News
Posted: Jan 24, 2012 12:56 PM
Palestinians take step toward elections, unity

Palestinian political rivals Hamas and Fatah on Tuesday took a first practical step toward elections and possible unity by opening an office for voter registration in the Gaza Strip.

Presidential and parliament elections are envisioned for late spring, though a date has not been set. Elections are at the center of reconciliation efforts between the Islamic militant Hamas and Fatah, the movement of internationally backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas won parliament elections in 2006 and wrested control of Gaza from Abbas by force a year later, leaving him with only the West Bank. The Gaza office of the Central Elections Commission was closed after the 2007 takeover and reopened Tuesday.

Updating Gaza voter records is a key part of election preparations, which officials have said would require several weeks. Elections could be held within three months of the completion of preparations. Abbas would set the date by decree.

In the West Bank, Israeli forces detained a Hamas lawmaker, the fifth such arrest in five days, prompting Hamas accusations that Israel is trying to sabotage the planned elections. Hamas has said it would only participate in elections if its candidates are safe from arrest by Israel.

"Every time we move toward reconciliation and reactivating the Palestinian parliament, we see Israel targeting our lawmakers in the West Bank," said Ismail Ashkar, a Hamas lawmaker.

Hamas said that in the latest incident, lawmaker Abdel Jaber Fuqaha was taken from his home in the West Bank city of Ramallah early Tuesday.

Israel's military confirmed the arrest but declined further comment.

Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization. The group has carried out scores of deadly attacks against Israelis but has largely held its fire in recent years.

Currently, 24 of 45 Hamas legislators from the West Bank are in Israeli detention on charges of membership in an illegal organization, Hamas said. Hamas lawmakers have been subject to arrest by Israel since the group defeated Fatah in the 2006 election. Several lawmakers have been detained repeatedly.

Asked about the recent string of arrests, Israeli officials denied claims that they are politically motivated. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters, declined further comment.

Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat, a leader in Fatah, condemned the recent arrests as a "flagrant act of aggression" that undermines prospects for peace. "With these actions, Israel exposes the farcical nature of its peace rhetoric," he said.

In recent months, Hamas and Fatah have tried to reconcile but have had trouble moving forward because of continued mistrust. Next week, Abbas is to meet with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Cairo to try to break the impasse.