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Masked gunmen opposed to next Januaryâ€™s parliamentary elections on Monday stormed the offices of the Palestinian Authorityâ€™s Central Elections Committee in Rafah and demanded the cancellation of the vote.
Armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and hand grenades, the attackers, who identified themselves as members of a previously-unknown group called Islamic Army, ordered the employees to close the offices immediately.
â€œThey threatened us with their guns,â€ said one of the employees. â€œThere were eight of them. The gunmen fled shortly before PA policemen arrived at the scene.â€ The attackers left behind a flier signed by the Islamic Army in which they claimed that the elections were being exploited by â€œcollaboratorsâ€ to ignite a civil war among the Palestinians. They also warned that the group would severely punish anyone who helps Israel in driving a wedge between the Palestinians.
Sources in Rafah said the gunmen were apparently affiliated with Hamas. Israel, the US and the European Union have all expressed opposition to Hamasâ€™s participation in the elections, slated for January 25.
Dozens of Hamas candidates have been arrested by the IDF in recent weeks in various parts of the West Bank in a bid to undermine the Islamic movementâ€™s chances of winning.
Meanwhile, the PAâ€™s decision to postpone next monthâ€™s municipal elections in Hebron has drawn sharp criticism from Hamas. In a statement, Hamas condemned the decision as illegal, saying it was the result of an ongoing power struggle inside the ruling Fatah party.
Hebron is known as a traditional stronghold for Hamas and other Islamic groups a fact that has always worried the PA and Fatah leaders. The PA justified its decision by arguing that it was inconceivable to hold elections while large parts of the city remain under Israeli control.
In a separate development, dozens of gunmen occupied the headquarters of the PA local offices in Khan Yunis on Sunday night in the fifth incident of its kind in recent months.
Eyewitnesses said at least 70 gunmen participated in the raid. They said the gunmen, all members of Fatah, were protesting against the PAâ€™s failure to incorporate them into its security forces.
Under pressure to end lawlessness and anarchy, the PA announced that it would launch major security operations in Nablus and Tulkarm on Tuesday to restore law and order.
Residents of the two cities had repeatedly complained against various gangs roaming the streets and imposing a reign of terror on the local population.
On the eve of the security campaign, PA Interior Minister Nasser Youssef fired Col. Maher Fares, commander of the Military Intelligence Force in Nablus. Fares was accused of criticizing the PA leadership after the recent assassination of Gen. Musa Arafat, the former commander of Military Intelligence.in Gaza City three months ago.