- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 16, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian leaders yesterday moved toward a deal under which Hamas, the largest militant Palestinian movement, would take part in elections for a Palestinian president and legislature.

They also sought at meetings in Gaza City to ensure peace among militant groups while bracing for a new wave of unrest in the event a French autopsy report confirms widespread suspicions that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was poisoned, although French officials have pledged keep Mr. Arafat’s medical records unpublished in accordance with privacy laws.

Palestinian Authority officials consider Hamas’ participation — or at least acquiescence — as vital to making sure militants do not sabotage the election process with a terrorist attack on Israel.

Hamas has declined to join other militant groups, including Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, in consenting to a pre-election truce.

In negotiations yesterday involving 12 militant factions and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s new chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas laid out its conditions for taking part in the elections.

“We are talking about forming a national unity leadership that holds elections outside the reference of the 1993 Oslo accords and the regulations of the Palestinian Authority,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohry told The Washington Times.

Hamas boycotted the 1996 elections, though a small number of pro-Hamas independents were elected to the legislature. It considers the Oslo accords a betrayal of Palestinian claims to Palestine, which in its view includes all of present-day Israel.

Mr. Abu Zohry said Hamas was awaiting clarification from Palestinian Authority leaders on two points: “a political frame of reference, and the election system.”

Hamas, he said, has asked the Palestinian leaders to postpone the elections, now scheduled for Jan. 9, while those terms are negotiated.

But leaders of Mr. Arafat’s central Fatah faction want a quick election to show they are adhering to the Palestinian Constitution. They say an early election also will give the new leadership legitimacy and put pressure on Israel to ease its grip on Palestinian cities.

Hamas, however, is loath to see the election of a new Palestinian Authority president ahead of separate elections for the Palestinian legislature and municipal posts, fearing the new leader will manipulate the later polls to Hamas’ disadvantage.

“The current situation and timing is not ideal,” Mr. Abu Zohry said.

The spokesman said Hamas has declined to go along with a cease-fire in its ongoing battle against Israel “since the Israelis continue to attack us.”

New clashes erupted yesterday between rival Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip, where a gunfight on Sunday killed two of Mr. Abbas’ bodyguards.

Palestinian insiders said the attackers in that incident were followers of the local Fatah leader in Gaza, Ahmed Hilles, who leads one of the largest clans in the strip’s fractured social structure.

His men, mostly relatives and residents of his Shejaya neighborhood, are antagonistic to another militia led by Mohamed Dahlan, the national security adviser to Mr. Abbas in a short-lived government last year.

Mr. Hilles considers himself to be more loyal to Mr. Arafat and his uncompromising positions than either Mr. Dahlan, who had publicly attacked Mr. Arafat, or Mr. Abbas, who resigned as prime minister in protest over Mr. Arafat’s management last year.

An official of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade promised yesterday to fully support the election process, but issued a veiled warning to any Palestinian leader who gives up too much to the Israelis.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin “got killed because some Jewish organizations believed he surrendered to the Palestinians,” a senior brigade official told the Jerusalem Post.

“I believe that people can get killed when their people believe they are surrendering them to the enemy.”

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