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Palestinian Elections In Doubt

Palestinian parties launched their election campaign with banners, rallies and parades Tuesday, amid growing tensions between the Islamic militant group Hamas and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas over his suggestion to postpone the Jan. 25 parliamentary vote.

Abbas said for the first time Monday that the vote could be put off if Israel bars Palestinians from voting in the sector of Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians as a future capital.

Gunmen have repeatedly seized Palestinian elections offices, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger. But of more concern to Abbas is that Hamas is expected to make a strong showing in the election. Hamas, which has most of the guns in Gaza, has warned that an election postponement will lead to a power vacuum and more chaos.

It is unlikely Abbas would postpone the election without Hamas' consent.

In Jerusalem, the head of Israel's Shin Bet security service told a parliamentary committee that a strong Hamas showing would spell "deep trouble" for Israel.

In other developments:

  • Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will turn over his duties to deputy premier Ehud Olmert for three hours, when he undergoes a heart procedure on Thursday, reports Berger. Doctors will perform a catheterization to repair a small hole in Sharon's heart, after he suffered a minor stroke two weeks ago. The procedure is described as routine and not life threatening.
  • The top Muslim cleric in the Holy Land on Tuesday called on Israel to halt work on an archaeological project near a disputed holy site, saying continuing the dig would inflame tensions in the region. The site is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.
  • Jewish settlers on Tuesday set fire to a Palestinian house and threw eggs and chemicals at Israeli soldiers after eight settler families were ordered to leave a market area they took over four years ago, Israeli officials said. The army says it will remove the Jews by force if necessary.
  • Israeli military chief Dan Halutz on Tuesday said that Iran's nuclear program "can be destroyed," Israel's Army Radio said. There were no further details.
  • Sharon's eldest son resigned his parliamentary seat on Tuesday, ahead of a Jan. 22 sentencing over charges of illegal fund-raising for his father's 1999 election campaign, a spokeswoman said. Omri Sharon pleaded guilty in November to falsifying corporate documents, perjury and violating party funding laws. Prosecutors are demanding imprisonment.

  • The new year also brings the opening round in Israel's election campaign, where two political heavyweights are facing off, Berger reports (audio).

    Benjamin Netanyahu, the new leader of Israel's hawkish Likud party, has decided to pull Likud ministers out of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Cabinet. It's the first shot in the election campaign between old political rivals, as Netanyahu faces off with Sharon in the race for prime minister on March 28. Sharon bolted the Likud in November and formed a moderate centrist party. Polls show Sharon will win by a landslide.

    The start of the Palestinian campaign was overshadowed by anarchy in Gaza and renewed Israeli-Palestinian fighting.

    Late Monday, an Israeli air strike killed two members of the militant Islamic Jihad group who Israel said were involved in rocket attacks on Israel. The two were in a car when it was struck by a missile. A third occupant of the car was wounded, along with two bystanders, hospital officials said. Islamic Jihad threatened revenge.

    Across the West Bank and Gaza, parties decorated streets with banners and posters Tuesday, marking the launch of the election campaign. Hamas signs read "Islam is the solution" and "One hand resists and one builds."

    In the West Bank city of Nablus, Hamas candidates and about 200 supporters marched to a local cemetery to pay their respects at the graves of three Hamas leders killed in fighting with Israel in recent years. "We ask all Palestinians to join us to create an Islamic state. The Islamic state is on the rise," said Sheik Hamed Bitawi, a Hamas candidate.

    In Gaza City, a children's parade for legislator Marwan Kanafani, an independent candidate, was led by actors dressed as Disney characters, including Mickey Mouse.

    The top Hamas candidate, Ismail Haniyeh, told reporters in Gaza that the election must not be postponed under any circumstances, despite growing pressure by Abbas' Fatah Party to put off the vote.

    "We have told them (Fatah) that postponing the election will lead to a vacuum and to a dark future," Haniyeh said. "Postponing the election is not the solution. We urged them (Fatah) to go ahead with the election."

    The No. 2 on the Hamas slate, Mohammed Abu Teir, said the election should be held even if Jerusalemites cannot cast their ballots in the city and have to travel to West Bank suburbs to do so.

    Abu Teir's comment marked the first time Hamas official raised such an option. Election procedures in Jerusalem are of great symbolic importance to Israel and the Palestinians, with both claiming the city as their capital.

    Abu Teir also said he expects Hamas to win up to 40 percent of the 132 parliament seats — the first such prediction by a senior Hamas official.

    On Monday, Abbas complained that Israel is balking at allowing Jerusalem's Palestinians to participate. "We all agree that Jerusalem should be included in the elections," Abbas said in Doha, Qatar. "If it is not included, all the factions agree there should be no elections."

    There are other reasons. Fatah, reeling from internal squabbles, fears an election fiasco. Also, armed gangs, mostly from Fatah itself, are causing mayhem in Gaza, calling into question whether orderly elections can be held.

    The head of the Fatah campaign, Information Minister Nabil Shaath, said he expected Abbas' party to win 70 percent of the seats, a prediction that far exceeded recent poll results that gave Fatah 43 percent of the seat.

    An Israeli ban on Jerusalem voting would make a convenient target for pinning blame for delaying the vote, but Israeli officials say they don't want to take the rap and are looking for a compromise. One official called the Jerusalem issue a technical issue that could be resolved.

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