Senior government officials are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss Israel's policy toward Hamas's participation in the upcoming Palestinian Authority elections, amid signs Israel is easing up on opposition to their being held in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas announced on Monday that he had received assurances from the US that Palestinians would be permitted to vote in Jerusalem.
"Today, for the first time, we received from the Americans assurances that the elections will be held in Jerusalem," he said during a press conference in Gaza City.
However, US diplomatic officials denied that the US had given the PA any assurances and said that the issue was still being discussed.
Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra, reversing a previous ban on PA political activity in Jerusalem, signed off on a government directive Monday allowing those running in the January 25 Palestinian Legislative Council elections to campaign in the capital. Ezra said, however, that Hamas and other extremist groups would not be allowed to campaign.
"Every candidate for the Palestinian parliament can campaign as long as he is not a member of an extreme and radical gun-wielding organization," he said.
While Ezra's decision, which was made following consultations with Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and senior defense officials, pertained only to campaigning, sources in the Internal Security Ministry said the government would reevaluate its decision on whether Jerusalem's Palestinian residents would be allowed to vote closer to the elections.
Abbas stressed that the PA still hadn't heard similar assurances from Israel.
"We are receiving contradictory messages from the Israelis," Abbas said. "Once they tell us that we would be allowed to hold the vote in Jerusalem, and another time they say we can't. Now that we have received American guarantees, the elections in Jerusalem will be held on the basis of the 1996 model [where voters cast their ballots at Israeli post office branches]."
Abbas threatened to call off the election if Israel does not allow the vote to take place in Jerusalem. He said he had informed all Palestinian factions of this decision.
Abbas also urged the factions to work toward ending lawlessness and anarchy in PA-controlled areas, saying that "I have instructed the security forces to use force to prevent any attempt to sabotage the democratic process."
Although no final Israeli government decision has been made, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the cabinet Sunday that Israel's message "is that east Jerusalem residents would be able to vote, but not in east Jerusalem, rather in areas close to their homes," an apparent reference to areas like Abu Dis and Eizariya. By taking this position he has overruled other senior ministry officials who were in favor of allowing the same election arrangements in the city this time as were allowed for the PA chairmanship elections in 2005 and legislative council elections in 1996.
Only a few hundred Arab residents of Jerusalem have registered as voters for the upcoming elections, PA officials revealed on Monday.
According to figures released by the PA's Central Elections Commission, nearly 50,000 Arabs from the "Jerusalem district" have registered, half of the number of eligible voters there. However, the figures consist largely of residents of West Bank villages not located within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem.
The "Jerusalem district,", which includes Abu Dis, A-Ram, Bir Nabala, Hizma and Kalandiya, has a total population of 323,837. About 70 percent live inside the city's municipal boundaries and hold Israeli ID cards.
Last year, the Central Elections Commission launched a campaign to register Arab residents of the city as voters. However, the Israeli authorities closed down the registration centers shortly after they were opened in some neighborhoods because the PA is not permitted to carry out such activities in Israel.
The registration centers were later moved to villages outside the city's municipal boundaries to enable eligible voters to register. Still, most Arabs holding Israeli ID cards that grant them the rights of permanent residents of Jerusalem chose to stay away.
PA officials have blamed Israeli "restrictions" for the low turnout, saying many voters were unable to register because of the closure of registration centers in the city. Moreover, they claimed that the majority of Arabs were unable to travel to the West Bank to register as voters because of IDF checkpoints at the entrances to the city.
In the first parliamentary elections in 1996, less than 6,000 of the 125,000 eligible Arab voters in Jerusalem cast their ballots in Israeli post offices throughout the city.
The figure relates only to those Arabs who carry Israeli ID cards. Some Palestinians have put the figure at less than 2,000.
In a bid to encourage Arab residents of Jerusalem to participate in the elections, the PA is now considering allowing voters who are not registered to cast ballots. The same procedure was taken in last year's chairmanship election, which also saw a small number of Arabs from Jerusalem take part.
Thirty-nine candidates are competing in the upcoming elections as representatives of the Jerusalem district. Most are affiliated with Fatah, while others belong to Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
On Monday, some of the candidates staged a sit-in outside the Old City's Damascus Gate to voice their opposition to Israeli restrictions on election campaigning in the city.
Several candidates who were summoned to the Jerusalem police on Sunday night said they were told that they would be allowed to campaign in the city on condition that armed organizations and members of terror organizations would not be allowed to participate.
The police also demanded that election posters only be posted in places permitted by the police, and that any planned election rally would be coordinated with Israel.
Last month, Israeli diplomatic officials informed the head of European election monitors here that Israel would not let the voting take place. After the PA threatened to postpone the elections if this were the case, diplomatic officials made clear that the policy would be reevaluated closer to the time of the elections.
Tuesday's meeting is to be convened by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's top aide, Dov Weisglass, and will include senior officials from the Foreign, Internal Security, Defense and Justice ministries.
A final government decision on voting in the post offices in east Jerusalem is not expected until after senior US officials Elliott Abrams and David Welch arrive. The two, who postponed their visit last week when Sharon fell ill, are expected to arrive by Thursday.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.
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