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Palestinian Minister Calls for US Election Observers

A senior Palestinian minister is calling for American monitors to observe the January 9 presidential election. The appeal comes as one of the candidates ran into trouble with Israeli authorities as he tried to get his message out.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat is calling on the American Congress to send monitors to observe the election.

Mr. Erekat says it is important that Americans see that Palestinian voters are not operating in an independent state, but rather under Israeli occupation. He says Palestinians want free and fair elections, but the Israeli occupation is an impediment. Mr. Erekat also says Palestinians want the Americans to pressure Israel to honor its commitment to help facilitate the elections.

When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell came here last month he received assurances from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel would to whatever it could to help. And, on Sunday the Israeli cabinet approved measures to do just that, including plans to withdraw Israeli troops from Palestinian population centers and to allow candidates to travel freely to campaign.

But, one candidate has already run into trouble trying to get his message out. Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent physician and human rights activists was campaigning in East Jerusalem on Monday when Israeli police arrested him and held him briefly for questioning. Police said Mr. Barghouti had violated his Israeli entry permit which allows him to travel through Jerusalem, but not to stop there.

Barghouti campaign spokesman, Allam Jarrar says the Israeli action is harassment.

"We view this act as a violation of the fairness and the integrity of the electoral process, said Mr. Jarrar. "We see it also as a violation of the statements of the Israelis themselves and also their commitment to facilitate the election process in Palestine."

The Palestinian presidential campaign follows local elections in 26 West Bank communities last week. The mainstream Fatah faction came out on top despite a strong showing from the Islamic militant group Hamas which claimed victory in nine municipal councils.

Opinion polls show Fatah remains the most popular faction with Hamas retaining considerable support, especially in the Gaza Strip. What came as somewhat of a surprise was Hamas's solid showing in what were thought to be Fatah strongholds in the West Bank.

Palestinian sociologist, Nader Said, has conducted numerous public opinion polls on political and social issues. He sees the election outcome not so much as a victory for Hamas, but rather a protest vote against Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.

"What we have seen in the local elections is basically a split vote between a block supportive of the continuation of the status quo under the Palestinian national authority as we see it and a protest vote saying that there is a Palestinian solid opposition," explained Mr. Said.

Professor Said says the vote indicates that many Palestinians are fed up with years of corruption and mismanagement under the Palestinian Authority and they want change. And, that he says should send a definite message to Fatah candidate Mahmoud Abbas, who is seeking to succeed Yasser Arafat as Palestinian Authority president in the January 9 elections.