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Campaigning for Palestinian elections gets under way

JERUSALEM—Palestinian politicians began campaigning for legislative office Tuesday despite prospects that elections Jan. 25 might be scrubbed.

Between chaos in the streets and Israel's refusal so far to allow voting in predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is facing mounting pressure to delay the first legislative elections in a decade.

Abbas also faces the likelihood that voters who are disenchanted with his ruling Fatah party will throw their support behind Islamic militants, especially members of Hamas. Israeli action to bar East Jerusalem voting could give Abbas an excuse to delay the elections, allowing him more time to try to win back voters.

On Tuesday, Israeli police briefly detained independent candidate Mustafa Barghouti, a distant relative of jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, and barred moderate Hanan Ashrawi from holding a rally outside the walls of the Old City in East Jerusalem.

Hamas leaders refuse to support any efforts to scuttle the elections over the East Jerusalem issue, a stance that could make it difficult for Abbas to postpone the vote. Hamas expects to become the leading opposition party in the Palestinian Legislative Council.

U.S. negotiators David C. Welch and Elliott Abrams are expected to arrive in the region Thursday to discuss the prospects for the elections. Last week, the United States joined Russia, the European Union and the United Nations in calling on the Palestinians to do more to create a violence-free and fair campaign environment and on the Israelis to help ensure that voters in East Jerusalem are allowed to take part.

The campaign has been filled with chaos and uncertainty. Militants have briefly kidnapped Westerners in the Gaza Strip, repeatedly stormed campaign offices and threatened to disrupt the elections if they take place later this month.

"We are not controlling the streets," said Ziad Abu Ein, a younger, anti-corruption Fatah member who's calling for the elections to be put off for a year. "We are afraid that Jan. 25 will be a day of blood."

Abbas already has delayed the elections once and so far has resisted pressure to delay them again. But this week he hinted that he might postpone them if Israel prevented Palestinians in East Jerusalem from participating.

Israeli leaders, concerned about Hamas taking part in the elections, are divided over whether to allow the estimated 120,000 eligible Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote. In recent Palestinian elections, East Jerusalem voters have cast ballots in city post offices.

Israel says it's made no decision, despite cracking down on Palestinian politicians trying to campaign in the disputed city.

Gideon Meir, the deputy director general of Israel's Foreign Affairs Ministry, said Palestinians wouldn't be allowed to campaign in East Jerusalem until both sides agreed to some ground rules. It's unclear when that might happen. Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, in which it captured the Arab-controlled parts of Jerusalem from Jordan.

The annexation has been a major point of contention in the Middle East. Control of the Old City—with its major religious sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians—remains the biggest sticking point in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

A range of Palestinian candidates, from Barghouti to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, urged Abbas on Tuesday to hold the vote as planned.

"No elections means a vacuum, an absence of authority and a lack of leadership," Barghouti said. "And the only way to fill the gap is through elections."

Standing outside the Gaza Strip house of the late Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, whom Israel assassinated in 2004, Haniyeh said delaying the elections wouldn't solve the problems that Palestinians face.

More than 700 candidates are vying for 132 seats in the expanded Palestinian legislature. Fatah controls about three-quarters of the current 88 seats and has dominated the council since the last elections in 1996, when Hamas declined to take part because it refused to endorse the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Polls show Hamas winning about a third of the votes and Fatah drawing support from about 40 percent of the population.

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(Knight Ridder special correspondents Mohammed Najib in Ramallah, West Bank, and Mahmoud Habboush in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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