- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 19, 2002

From combined dispatches
RAMALLAH, West Bank Yasser Arafat will convene a rare meeting of the Palestinian election committee today, after he raised doubts about a vote he promised under popular pressure.
The militant Islamic group Hamas yesterday left open the door to its participation in the planned elections, a possibility that would present a formidable challenge to the Palestinian leader's Fatah movement.
Elections are among the reforms of the Palestinian Authority that many see as vital to peace with Israel and that could lead to a state Palestinians want to establish on territory largely under Israeli occupation.
Mohammed Shtaeh, secretary-general of the Palestinian Authority's Central Election Committee, said the panel would meet Mr. Arafat at his request today. "We do not have an agenda. We will see what the president wants," Mr. Shtaeh told Reuters news agency yesterday.
Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Mr. Arafat also was planning to meet leaders of Fatah last night but described the session as routine, dealing with "internal issues," not elections.
Hamas, which is second only to Fatah in popularity among Palestinians, also vowed yesterday to continue suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. It said it would not stop them until Israeli soldiers halted attacks against Palestinian civilians.
Meanwhile, about 20 Palestinian Cabinet ministers offered to resign yesterday, Palestinian officials said, in a gesture to spur reforms in the Palestinian Authority. The Cabinet ministers offered to present their resignations yesterday, the officials said, but none actually had resigned.
On Thursday, the Palestinian parliament put together a list of reform demands, including disbanding the Cabinet and calling elections for president and parliament.
Minister Hassan Asfour said the ministers would resign if Mr. Arafat thought that action would spur reforms. "We will follow President Arafat's decision," he told the Associated Press.
Mr. Arafat, whose popularity is at a low point, has promised to hold general elections but later linked the balloting to an Israeli withdrawal from positions in the Palestinian territories.
His aides said the Israelis first must dismantle dozens of roadblocks that make travel inside of the West Bank extremely difficult. They also said Israeli soldiers would have to be pulled back from positions that ring Palestinian cities. The elections are expected within six months, if the Palestinian conditions are met, they said.
The United States, Europe and Israel have been pressing Mr. Arafat to hold elections and reform his administration, which is widely regarded as corrupt.
Israel has said that it will not pull back its soldiers until Mr. Arafat's security forces arrest militants, and that Mr. Arafat's conditions are a ploy to avoid elections.
"We're there because he's not doing his job," said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Hamas, which boycotted the last elections in 1996, has indicated it would consider fielding candidates in upcoming elections as long as the balloting has nothing to do with the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
Hamas does not recognize the peace agreement and calls for the destruction of Israel. The United States considers the group to be a terrorist organization.
"We do not recognize any elections that came as a result of the Oslo agreement, and if the coming elections will be the same as the past, we will consider it an obstacle for the participation of Hamas and other parties," Ismail Abu Shanab, a senior Hamas leader, told the Associated Press yesterday.
Mr. Arafat has not said that upcoming elections would have anything to do with the Oslo process, but it's not clear if he would agree to Hamas' participation. The election of members of Hamas or other militant groups to the Palestinian parliament would be a massive setback to the already faltering peace process.
"These are organizations that have stated very clearly that they want the destruction of Israel," Mr. Gissin said.
"Would you imagine that a terrorist group would run for election in the United States or any other democracy?" he asked. "Who are you going to negotiate with then?"
Mr. Abu Shanab said Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide attacks since the uprising began in September 2000, will continue the attacks as long as Israeli soldiers or settlers are on occupied territory.
Hamas claimed responsibility for a March 27 suicide bombing that killed 29 Israelis during a Passover Seder, an attack that led Israel to mount its largest military offensive in the West Bank in decades.
Violence in a Palestinian uprising against occupation in much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip continued yesterday. Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian doctor driving past the village of Beit Omar, near the city of Hebron, Palestinian sources said. Military sources said soldiers fired at a car that ran through a checkpoint.
On Friday, a Palestinian gunman entered a Jewish settlement in the West Bank and wounded a guard before the gunman was shot dead. The Israeli army said it also raided Jenin's refugee camp and seized 24 militants involved in terrorist attacks on Israelis.


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