- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2005

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told his Cabinet yesterday that Israel shouldn’t release more Palestinian prisoners until the Palestinian government clamps down on militants, setting off Palestinian charges that Israel is acting in bad faith.

Mr. Sharon’s tough stance threatened to weaken Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as his ruling Fatah party coped with gains by rival Hamas militants in local elections last week. Fatah officials yesterday accused Hamas of cheating in several key districts.

Israeli and Palestinian officials discussed the prisoner issue yesterday, but their meeting ended in disagreement. Palestinians accused Israel of breaking a truce that has reduced violence.

Israel released 500 prisoners shortly after the two sides declared the truce and had been expected to free 400 more.

The releases are a major element of the truce package, which also called for Israel to hand over five West Bank towns to Palestinian security control and stop its hunt for Palestinian fugitives.

But these steps reached an impasse early on. After withdrawing from two West Bank towns, Israel has frozen any further security transfers.

The Palestinians have said they are working to persuade militants to give up their weapons, but Mr. Abbas remains reluctant to confront militants for fear of provoking bloodshed.

Israel has put pressure on the Palestinian Authority as Mr. Abbas walks a fine line in his dealings with Hamas, which advocates Israel’s destruction.

Mr. Abbas has been trying to co-opt Hamas into the political system in an attempt to moderate the group, while also trying to prevent Hamas from growing too strong to block his peacemaking moves.

Although Fatah fared better than expected in Thursday’s elections, Hamas captured the three largest districts, reinforcing it as a formidable political force ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for July. Hamas is expected to make a strong showing in those elections.

Palestinian election officials yesterday postponed the release of official results but said the delay was unrelated to complaints of fraud. They also said no recount was planned in disputed districts where Hamas militants unseated the ruling Fatah party.

Fatah won in 45 of 84 communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that voted last week, preliminary results showed. But Hamas won 23 contests, including the three biggest districts.

Officials in Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party demanded a recount in the Gaza towns of Rafah, Beit Lahiya and El Bureij.

“In our opinion, there was a lot of fraud there that tipped the scales from a sweeping victory for Fatah in Rafah and a sweeping victory for Fatah in Beit Lahiya to victories for Hamas,” said Sufian Abu Zaydeh, a Fatah Cabinet minister.

“We’re talking about a difference of 100 to 200 votes that could make the difference in giving most seats to Hamas or vice versa.”

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