Campaigning in the Palestinian legislative elections ended at mid-night on Monday.
24 hours before about 80 per cent of eligible voters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who had registered with the Central Elections Commission (CEC), began voting on Wednesday at about 1,000 polling centres to elect from among 11 lists and 414 independents their representatives at the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).
This was amid inter-Palestinian as well as Palestinian-Israeli, US and EU wrangling over the role of Hamas in the upcoming Palestinian government.
While the US and the EU reportedly promised Israel they will not recognise any Palestinian government in which Hamas participates, top Fatah candidate in Wednesday’s legislative election, Marwan Barghouthi, called from his Israeli prison for a national cabinet with the Islamic Resistance Movement.
However his chief campaigner Nabil Sha’th set conditions for Hamas participation and the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmad Qurei, went further on Sunday by urging Palestinians not to give Israel an excuse against peace talks when they vote for Hamas.
The American administration has promised Israel that the United States will not recognise any Palestinian government in which Hamas participates, government sources in Jerusalem told the Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Monday.
American envoys who visited Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) about 11 days ago told Israeli officials that recognising such a government would violate American law, which labels Hamas as a ‘terrorist’ organisation.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday cautioned Palestinian voters that ‘the United States won’t change its policies toward Hamas.’
Referring to potential peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel, she said, ‘It’s hard to have negotiations with a party that you do not recognise its right to exist.’
Israel has also received similar messages from Javier Solana, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos, who visited Israel last week, Ha’aretz quoted Israeli officials as saying.
On Monday British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it would be difficult for the West to negotiate with Hamas if they joined a Palestinian government unless the group renounced terrorism.
‘It is very difficult for us to be in the position of negotiating or talking to Hamas unless there’s a very clear renunciation of terrorism,’ Blair told a monthly news conference.
Meanwhile the Palestinian national list of ‘Badil,’ comprising a coalition of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), People’s Party and Fida, and former PNA minister of state Ahmad Majdalani who is leading a separate national list denied at two separate news conferences at the PMC on Monday that they had received any US funds to finance their campaigns.
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has used a special $1.9 million budget to promote democratic parties in the Palestinian election, said a US Consulate spokeswoman in Jerusalem, Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, on Sunday.
She denied that the money, used in part to clean streets, distribute free food and water and to help fund a youth soccer tournament, was used to boost Fatah’s electoral prospects.
USAID mission director for the Palestinian territories, James Bever, told reporters Monday: ‘We are not favouring any particular party. . . but we do not support parties that are on the terrorism list. We are here to support the democratic process.’
Majdalani, who leads the ‘Freedom and Social Justice’ list, demanded the PNA immediately open an official investigation by the Palestinian attorney-general into Schweitzer-Bluhm’s statement.
The United States and EU both consider Hamas a terrorist group, and both have said millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians could be jeopardised.
‘As a matter of policy, we don’t deal with Hamas,’ said Stewart Tuttle, the US Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv. ‘If Hamas members win seats. . . we are not going to deal with those individuals,’ he added.
While some security officials privately support a dialogue with Hamas, top Israeli leaders, including military chief Lt General Dan Halutz and Mofaz, say the group must first disarm and revoke its charter and recognise the state of Israel.
Mofaz indicated that Israel might adopt unilateral steps in case Hamas wins the elections.
Halutz said the outcome of the Palestinian election offers Israel three options.
‘Regarding the elections in the Palestinian authority, there are three options: That Fatah wins, that Hamas wins or anarchy wins. One of these results could put all progress back several years,’ Halutz told an academic conference on Sunday, apparently referring to Hamas and warning that violence could follow the election.
Meanwhile, the PNA is seeking a national unity government with Hamas, but on the basis of Oslo accords with Israel.
In two separate interviews with the Arabic al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya satellite television stations, Fatah’s leading candidate, Marwan Barghouthi, echoing Abbas said the objective behind the elections was to ‘establish a national reform government where everyone participates.’
He added: ‘Following the elections, we’ll need a reform government that enjoys wide support,’ he said.
According to Barghouthi, Fatah and Hamas ‘are moving in the direction of partnership on the ground and in the legislative council.
‘We should not think that the aim of 25th of January is the seats,’ Barghouthi said. ‘There is an upcoming aim we should be prepared for: A broad national reform government with the participation of all,’ he said.
Barghouthi rejected Israeli criticism of Hamas participation, saying that Israel was looking for excuses not to negotiate. ‘There is a strategic decision in Israel not to deal with any Palestinian partner, even before Hamas entered,’ he said.
‘From my prison cell I call on my great people, the Palestinians, to all take part in these elections. These elections are a sign of loyalty to deceased President Yasser Arafat, to (assassinated Hamas leader) Ahmad Yassin, to Abu Ali Mustafa, and to other martyrs who died,’ Barghouthi added.
‘All organisations will defend the elections,’ he said. ‘These weapons are holy and they have one role – to resist the occupation and protect our people. The organisations have one job – to protect the Palestinian people.’