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Palestinian Vote Could Be Delayed

Legislative elections in the Palestinian territories scheduled for January were thrown into confusion on Wednesday when Israeli officials said they will not allow Arabs living in East Jerusalem to vote. Palestinian officials responded by saying if East Jerusalem Arabs were stopped from voting the elections would be called off.

Senior Israeli officials said Wednesday they will not allow Arabs living in East Jerusalem to vote in Palestinian legislative elections scheduled to be held on January 25. Israeli officials say however no final decision has yet been taken on the matter.

Under the Oslo Peace Accords, Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are not given the right to vote in Palestinian elections, but Israeli officials have made exceptions in the past - most notably in last January's Palestinian presidential election, when East Jerusalem residents were allowed to vote in Israeli post offices.

Raanan Gissen , a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, says Israel has now changed its position because of the active participation of the Islamic militant group Hamas in January's vote.

"I do not see any good reason to make an exception this time to give a stage to, and provide and facilitate the victory to a terrorist organization that calls for destruction of the state of Israel. This is in its covenant of 1988," he said. "And it practices terrorist attacks against Israel continuously, but refuses to disarm, and once it wins is going to implement these policies."

Palestinian officials have reacted with anger to the comments. Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath is quoted in media reports as saying if there is no voting in Jerusalem, "there will be no elections." Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Wednesday he had not yet made a decision about whether to call off the vote if Israel goes ahead and bars East Jerusalem residents from voting.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat says the situation in the Palestinian territories could further deteriorate if Arab East Jerusalem residents are prevented from voting.

"Well this is a very dangerous development," he said. "I believe if the Israelis go ahead with this and sabotage our elections they will be pushing Palestinians towards a Somalia-model, towards civil, towards internal strife. It would be a catastrophe and a disaster, politically. We believe elections and the ballot are the way to salvage our problems and chaos and lawlessness."

The Israeli statements on Wednesday follow growing international concerns over the participation of Hamas in January's vote.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that says U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority would be at risk if Hamas joins any future Palestinian government. The European Union has also threatened to cut off aid to Palestinians if Hamas wins in January. Hamas is responsible for many suicide bombings in Israel and the U.S. State Department has labeled the organization a terrorist group.

However, Hamas has showed increasing strength at the polls, winning an overwhelming victory in municipal elections in the West Bank last week, running on a campaign of ending corruption, government mismanagement and lawlessness in the Palestinian territories.