- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 20, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas yesterday set Jan. 25 as election day for a Palestinian parliament.

But just as Mr. Abbas spoke, dozens of masked Hamas gunmen briefly took over Gaza City’s central square, keeping police at bay as they announced they would not halt attacks despite Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Their appearance in the park was a direct challenge to Mr. Abbas, who has appealed to militants not to flaunt their weapons in public. It also underscored the reluctance of police to confront gunmen.

Hamas’ political leaders, however, welcomed the setting of the election date.

Sheik Hassan Yousef, the Hamas leader in the West Bank, said his group was ready for its first national contest.

In recent months, Hamas has made a strong showing in several rounds of municipal elections and was expected to do well in the parliamentary vote.

“We have prepared our list of candidates, and we have even reserved a seat for the Christian minorities,” Sheik Yousef said.

The elections were initially to have been held in July, but were postponed because of squabbling in the current Palestinian parliament.

Lawmakers have not had to face an election since 1996 and many are expected to be voted out of office because of public anger over corruption and a challenge from Hamas candidates for the first time.

Mr. Abbas announced the date in a speech to high school students in Gaza City.

In setting a date, he could strengthen his international image as a reformer and give a new incentive to Hamas to suspend attacks during Israel’s Gaza Strip pullout, which continues this week.

Israel has warned it would launch a major ground offensive if Israeli soldiers and settlers were to come under fire during the withdrawal.

Hamas has been internally torn over how it should act during the withdrawal. Firing on Israeli soldiers and settlers during the withdrawal could boost Hamas’ claims that it has driven Israel out by force.

On Friday, two Hamas militants were wounded when a bomb they were carrying accidentally blew up before they could plant it near the evacuated Kfar Darom settlement.

However, the group could lose public support if Hamas attacks invite massive Israeli retaliation, something Hamas campaigners may not want to risk as they prepare for the legislative election. With a date set, that incentive becomes even stronger.

Israeli troops, meanwhile, took a break yesterday, the Jewish Sabbath, after evacuating 87 percent of Gaza settlers in just 2 days. All but four of 21 settlements were vacant.

In coming weeks, the settlement homes are to be demolished by Israeli troops. The first demolition was Friday at Kerem Atzmona, an illegal outpost within view of the Mediterranean.

The massive shovel of a yellow excavator flattened about 20 homes with just a few blows to each. Cranes lifted bomb shelters — concrete boxes with thick metal doors — onto a flatbed truck to be hauled away and recycled.

The removal of settlers was to resume today, and security officials said they expected all settlers to be out of the Gaza Strip by Tuesday.

By midweek, Israel was to begin clearing settlers out of two small West Bank enclaves, Sanur and Homesh, to which hundreds of pullout opponents have flocked in recent weeks to resist evacuation.

Residents of two other West Bank settlements marked for dismantling have left their homes on their own.

Mr. Abbas, meanwhile, has been using the withdrawal to boost his political standing, telling his people they would have more jobs, housing and freedom of movement once the Israelis leave.

On Friday, he told a cheering crowd at the closed Gaza International Airport that Israel’s departure was bringing “historic days of joy” to the Palestinians.

He promised that the airport, where runways were destroyed by Israel in fighting in 2000, would again become a gateway for Palestinians.

Mr. Abbas also pledged the Palestinian Authority would rebuild homes demolished by Israel during the past five years of conflict. He promised to reserve 5 percent of government jobs for the disabled, mainly war wounded.

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