- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian officials accused Israel of meddling in elections scheduled for the West Bank and Gaza after security forces rounded up dozens of Hamas campaign officials and candidates this week in retaliation for a spasm of rocket attacks on Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip border.

Israel’s army said it has detained 415 Palestinians since Friday, most of them fugitives associated with the militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations.

The group includes candidates for public office, some running for city councils in the West Bank in elections today and others who are expected to run for seats in the Palestinian national legislature in January.

“It’s unnecessary and unjustified intervention. And it will backfire,” said Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib. “We don’t think this is a wise move. This is going to indirectly strengthen the popularity and credibility of Hamas.”

A spokesman from Hamas’ Ramallah campaign office said that as many as six municipal candidates from the region were arrested and up to 30 campaign workers were detained.

Hamas began running in and winning municipal elections in Gaza and the West Bank late last year. It has since emerged as a de facto opposition to the Fatah party of the late Yasser Arafat, which dominates the ruling Palestinian Authority.

Israel says that it makes no distinction between the Hamas activists running for office and the group’s military wing, which security officials charge is exploiting a several-months calm in attacks to rearm itself.

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that Israel would not cooperate with the Palestinians in holding legislative elections as long as Hamas participates as a party with a military wing.

“We rounded them up because of their subversive activities, not because they are candidates. They are not part of a legitimate political organization,” said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Mr. Sharon.

“Until they disarm and disband, they aren’t going to be a legitimate partner. Any action that we’re taking against them is an action against a terrorist organization. One cannot blame us for putting them behind bars,” Mr. Gissin said.

With a Likud Party primary election looming next spring, Mr. Sharon cannot afford to appear soft on Hamas, analysts say.

The latest arrests followed last week’s launch of dozens of crudely made Kassam rockets at the Israeli city of Sderot and farming collectives adjacent to the Gaza Strip. Israel responded with assassinations of militants in Gaza as well as rocket and artillery fire at suspected munitions sites in Gaza and the West Bank arrests.

Despite a pledge from Hamas’ leadership in Gaza earlier this week to halt the attacks, lone rocket strikes have continued inside Israel.

Maj. Gen. Israel Ziv said the army was prepared to bombard civilian areas if the salvos don’t cease.

Hamas officials in the West Bank accused Israel of using its retaliation for the rocket attacks as an pretext to round up members of its campaign team.

Abu Mustafa, a campaign coordinator at Hamas’ Ramallah office, who used a nickname while being interviewed for fear of arrest, said the wave of Israeli roundups has hampered the party’s election effort during the latest round of municipal voting.

Even though the arrests could boost support for Hamas in the fourth installment of municipal voting today, resumed attacks on Israel by Hamas militants in Gaza could backfire in legislative elections, Mr. Mustafa said.

Firing rockets into Israel was a mistake by Hamas’ Gaza leadership.

“The Palestinian Authority and Israel have used what happened as an excuse to fight Hamas and to launch propaganda against Hamas,” he said.


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