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Israel OKs voting in East Jerusalem, arrests Hamas candidates

JERUSALEM—The Israeli government gave the green light on Sunday for Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote in next week's legislative elections, but then arrested four candidates from the Islamic group Hamas hours later.

The actions underscored the delicate balance Israel is trying to find in allowing Palestinians to hold a free and fair election without providing support to Hamas, a militant group that seeks Israel's destruction.

Early Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet approved a proposal by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that will allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to cast ballots.

Voting in East Jerusalem has been a delicate issue. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made voting in the city a prerequisite for holding the Jan. 25 election as scheduled. Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war and has declared the entire city its unified capital, didn't want to sanction anything that would undercut that disputed claim.

By allowing what is essentially absentee voting, Israel is following a model used in previous Palestinian elections. But the Cabinet refused to allow Hamas politicians to campaign in East Jerusalem.

Israeli police arrested four Hamas candidates, including Sheikh Mohammed Abu Tir, who is No. 2 on the party's election list.

Hamas officials denounced the arrests and vowed to continue campaigning in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want to claim as the capital of their hoped-for state.

The Israeli Cabinet also began wrestling with a growing confrontation with Jewish settlers in Hebron.

The Israeli government is preparing to evict a small group of Jewish settlers who have been living in a closed central market for several years. Israeli courts gave the settlers until Sunday to leave on their own, and Israeli forces are expected to forcibly remove the group in the coming days.

But settlers are vowing to fight any attempts to enforce the court orders and have been engaging in sporadic clashes with police. On Saturday, settlers went on a rampage through the market and set at least one building on fire. On Sunday, masked settlers threw stones and eggs at Israeli police, who began moving into the city in greater numbers.

At the Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Olmert issued a stern warning to the settlers, whom he called "extremist elements."

"The government will not countenance the wild and unrestrained behavior that has taken place in recent days, especially last night in Hebron," Olmert said. " I have instructed the heads of the security establishment to act assertively in preventing the continuation of such phenomena. The state of Israel is a state of law and whoever raises his hand will be severely punished."

Hebron always has been one of the more volatile cities in the West Bank because it is home to one of the more confrontational Jewish settlements. About 500 Jewish settlers in Hebron live uneasily amid nearly 200,000 Palestinians.

Israel shut down the city's Palestinian market in 1994 after settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslims in the city's Tomb of the Patriarchs, killing 29 worshippers.

Settlers took over the market in 2002 after a Jewish baby was killed by a Palestinian gunman.

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

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