- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian authorities canceled vacations and placed all police officers on call for tomorrow’s elections, fearing a wave of lawlessness will explode into widespread violence.

A spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry said yesterday that the greatest fear is that campaign invective will boil over into clashes at polling stations or fighting in the streets when the results are announced.

“The plan is based on a worst-case scenario,” said Tawfik Abu Khousa, referring to the breakdown of law and order in the Gaza Strip since Israeli troops pulled out in the summer.

“In this security atmosphere, you have to be prepared for all situations and eventualities. We hope nothing will happen.”

Official campaigning ended yesterday with the ruling Fatah party struggling to fend off a strong challenge from candidates of the militant group Hamas, who are contesting in Palestinian parliamentary elections for the first time.

At a Fatah rally, former security chief Mohammed Dahlan shared a cramped stage with bodyguards and policemen as he invoked the memory of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to inspire party activists.

Hamas, gaining strength by the day, sought to present itself yesterday as a reasonable alternative to Fatah that would permit negotiations with Israel.

“We will not put obstacles in the way of” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said Hamas candidate Ghazi Hamad, whose party indicated that it would accept a secondary role in a coalition Cabinet and let Mr. Abbas deal with Israel.

Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar said the party was open to indirect negotiations with Israel. “If Israel has anything to offer on the issues of halting attacks, withdrawal, releasing prisoners … then 1,000 means can be found,” he told reporters.

The Interior Ministry official said about 13,000 Palestinian police officers will guard the polling stations tomorrow while 58,000 security personnel will provide backup.

One concern is that a weak performance by Fatah will prompt gunmen from the party’s military wing to attack polling stations as they did during a primary election in December.

Although Fatah and Hamas agreed last week to refrain from election attacks, Mr. al-Zahar said he expects clashes when the results are announced. “The people will confront these clashes with their bodies,” he said.

Others fear that Hamas will retaliate violently if there are widespread suspicions of ballot box tampering or if the Palestinian Authority postpones the vote at the eleventh hour.

“When the results are known, it will be difficult for some people in Fatah to realize that they are not winning an absolute majority,” said Eyad Saraj, an independent candidate and head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.

“This is the first time in their history. And that will be difficult to swallow. It could be a violent reaction.”

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