- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2005

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas yesterday set a date for long-overdue legislative elections in what senior officials said was an attempt to give militants an incentive not to disrupt Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Abbas’ main political rival, Hamas, will compete for the first time in the national elections, scheduled for Jan. 21, and is expected to make a strong showing. With an election date set, Hamas is unlikely to do anything that could harm its popular support, including attacks on Israeli troops that would trigger a large-scale Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are trying to take credit for Israel’s Gaza pullout, which began yesterday, as thousands of Israeli troops distributed eviction notices in area settlements.

Hamas and other militants say they drove out Israel with shooting and bombing attacks, and Mr. Abbas is concerned that armed groups will try to disrupt the pullout with rocket and shooting attacks to make that point. Mr. Abbas stands to benefit from the pullout only if it proceeds peacefully.

However, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the group would hold its fire. “Hamas is committed to the quiet,” he said yesterday. “The ball is on the Israeli side now. If they will evacuate the Gaza Strip quietly, I think that there is no one among our people who will obstruct or violate this evacuation.”

Mr. Abbas set the election date yesterday in a meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee in Gaza City, said the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel, Saeb Erekat. A formal announcement was expected later in the week, he said.

The move was a message to the militants, Mr. Erekat said.

“We will not tolerate [violence.] Those who want to seek power need to do so through the ballot box, not bullets,” he said. “Everyone … will be focusing on January 21, what will gain them votes and what will make them lose votes.”

The elections initially had been set for mid-July but were delayed. Mr. Abbas cited technical reasons, but Hamas accused him of seeking additional time to shore up support for his corruption-tainted Fatah party.

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