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A new public opinion poll published on Saturday showed the ruling Fatah party and Hamas running a close race ahead of parliamentary elections slated for January 25.
Security sources in the American government warned that the US will cut funding to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas representatives would be elected to official positions in the new government that was expected to form.
According to Israel Radio, the warning came following a meeting between PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and US representatives David Welch and Elliot Abrams.
Welch and Abrams also met with Israeli Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier in the day, in the presence of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's aides Dov Weisglass and Shalom Tourjeman. This was Olmert's first meeting with these representatives since he took the role of acting prime minister some 10 days ago. Olmert was also scheduled to meet with US President George Bush in the near future.
Meanwhile, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar announced that his movement would not abandon the armed struggle against Israel or negotiate with any Israeli after, when and if, it wins the elections. He disclosed that a Hamas-controlled cabinet would incorporate Palestinian Authority policemen into armed groups that are fighting against Israel.
Conducted by the Development Studies Program at Bir Zeit University, the poll showed that if elections were held today, Fatah would win 35 percent of the votes as opposed to 30 percent for Hamas.
The Independent Palestine List, headed by political activist Mustafa Barghouti, came in third with only six percent. The poll, which was conducted last week, covered some 1,500 voters and has a three percent margin of error. About 25% of those polled said they still haven't decided whom to vote for. However, most said they were leaning to casting their ballots for Hamas.
Commenting on the results of the poll, Nader Said, director of the Development Studies Program, said it shows that "competition between Fatah and Hamas is at its highest level."
He noted that this was the first time in the history of the polls that Fatah and Hamas have been so close.
Addressing a Hamas rally in the southern city of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, Zahar reiterated his movement's opposition to any form of economic and security cooperation with Israel.
"To all those who claim that Hamas has abandoned the resistance option because of its participation in the election, we say that we remain committed to the resistance," he declared.
"Israel is an enemy, not a partner or a friend or a neighbor. We won't negotiate with them and this is our final position. Palestine, all of Palestine, belongs to the Muslims and the Arabs and no one has the right to give up one inch of its land."
Fathi Hamad, a Hamas candidate from the Gaza Strip, said his movement would continue to develop its armed wing, Izzaddin al-Kassam, by recruiting more members and manufacturing more rockets and bombs.
The fiery statements of the Hamas leaders come against a backdrop of reports suggesting that Hamas's victory in the parliamentary elections could have a moderating effect on the movement.
Hamas's decision to run in the elections has been interpreted by some Palestinians as recognition of the Oslo Accords and a sign of the movement's willingness to soften its position toward Israel. Its election campaign pointedly ignores the call for the destruction of Israel and focuses instead on internal issues related to financial corruption and lawlessness.
In a related development, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that international observers were expected to monitor the elections in Jerusalem.
US envoy to the Middle East David Welch met in Ramallah on Friday with PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas and told him that Washington supports allowing Arab residents of Jerusalem to vote in the parliamentary elections.
According to Erekat, Welch "told us they will exert every possible effort to have free elections according to the 1996 arrangements."
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