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Israel threatens military clampdown on eve of Palestinian elections

HAWARA CHECKPOINT, West Bank—Hopes dimmed Saturday for smooth elections to replace the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as Israel threatened to resume its military clampdown on volatile areas here and in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials had promised to keep their forces out of West Bank cities and cut back on some checkpoints to allow Palestinian voters easier access to polling stations Sunday in the first presidential election here since 1996. They appeared to keep that promise in parts of the West Bank on Saturday.

But outside the key northern city of Nablus, Israeli forces cracked down in response to a Palestinian ambush that killed one Israeli soldier and wounded three others. The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, an offshoot connected to the political movement of presidential frontrunner Mahmoud Abbas, claimed responsibility for the Friday incident. Abbas condemned it.

At this checkpoint south of Nablus on Saturday afternoon, angry male Palestinian travelers were kept waiting for hours in a cramped outdoor holding area as Israeli soldiers ran checks on their identity papers. Among those being held was Yahya Shunner, 34, a member of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia's staff.

"It's harder than ever," complained Shunner's wife, Nada Samara, 29, shivering in the cold as she waited for him. "He has diplomatic papers and they are doing this to him. I can't see how people will be able to vote tomorrow."

To Palestinians, such checkpoints are loathed symbols of occupation. Israeli officials say they are necessary to thwart suicide bombers and gunmen.

A spokesperson for European Union election observers who asked not to be identified said they will formally monitor Israeli checkpoint impediments for Palestinian voters on Sunday.

"We're not checkpoint monitors, but freedom of movement is an issue," said the spokesperson.

Monitors reported that the delivery of paper ballots to Nablus-area polling stations was delayed Saturday after the Israeli military slapped a curfew on eight nearby Palestinian villages. The restrictions were later lifted and the EU spokesperson said all election materials were ultimately distributed.

Israeli military officials defended their actions, arguing that Palestinian elections are no excuse for Israeli citizens to die.

One Israeli military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity Saturday, reported dozens of checkpoints and roadblocks had been removed by Saturday, including the main one outside the Palestinian border city of Qalqilya. Shoppers from Israel and West Bank towns took advantage of the impediment-free travel to pick up bargains there.

"Our main task is to facilitate conduct of the elections," Lt. Col. Yorai Qeder, who is coordinating the Israeli army's election planning, said Wednesday. But "if the Palestinians do not take action against these terrorist threats, we will need to do so ourselves."

Dov Weissglas, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's advisor, delivered a similar warning to former President Jimmy Carter and former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, who are in the West Bank as election monitors, Israel Radio reported Saturday. Israel asked Carter to deliver that message directly to Abbas, according to a Western official who spoke on the condition of not being identified.

Arafat's death had raised hopes of ending four years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and reviving peace negotiations aimed at establishing a Palestinian state. The United States and Israel accused Arafat of inciting the violence, something he always denied.

But militants are spurning Abbas's calls for a truce. Many are angry with him because of his condemnation of their tactics. They also oppose his government's decision to hold presidential elections before legislative ones that would likely propel a wave of Palestinian extremists to power.

Legislative elections are now scheduled for July 17.

New violence flared in the Gaza Strip on Saturday as Israeli soldiers fatally shot an elderly Palestinian in a car at a junction near an army post and a Jewish settlement, according to Palestinian medical officials. The Israeli military, however, said troops killed a gunman approaching a military post.

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(Knight Ridder correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-ELECTION

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