RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) wants to postpone parliamentary elections until November, hoping to recapture some of the popular support his ruling Fatah (search) party has lost, officials said Wednesday.
Two Palestinian officials close to Abbas, who is in the U.S. for talks with President Bush, confirmed the Palestinian leader is looking to push back the July 17 vote by four months.
The delay could inflame tensions between Fatah and the Islamic militant group, already high over disputed results in a recent round of local elections in which Hamas (search) had a strong showing.
Hamas, which is running for the first time in legislative elections, has objected to a delay because it would give Abbas more time to try to score concrete achievements in his faltering reform and peacemaking agenda.
But with Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (search) to start in mid-August, Hamas might acquiesce to the election delay with little real resistance.
On Wednesday, Israeli opponents of the pullout blocked a main Tel Aviv highway briefly with burning tires during evening rush hour. Police cleared the road within a few minutes.
Fatah's electoral standing has been hurt by a history of corruption and inefficiency during its exclusive rule of the Palestinian Authority (search).
Hamas, which won one-third of the municipalities contested in May 4 local elections, was expected to make serious inroads into Fatah's backing, possibly gaining a majority of the legislature.
Abbas' postponement of the election has been long expected, even though his official position has been to support a July 17 vote. The Palestinian Election Commission said Monday that it needed more time to prepare for the vote.
Mohammed Ghazal, a Hamas spokesman in the West Bank, said Abbas, in return for the delay, has promised Hamas to back an amendment to the election system that could favor the militant group. Hamas wants half of the legislators to be chosen in district elections and half from party slates, a system Abbas agreed to earlier this year when he brokered an informal Hamas truce with Israel.
But Ghazal stressed that the militant group continues to object to a postponement.
Hamas and Fatah are locked in another dispute over the results of the local elections. Hamas has threatened to walk away from an informal cease-fire with Israel that Abbas negotiated unless Fatah withdraws a legal challenge to results in three Gaza communities where the Islamic militants won elections earlier this month.
That dispute began after a special court, formed to settle election disputes, ordered a partial revote in the towns of Rafah and Beit Lahiya and the Bureij refugee camp.
Egyptian mediators have been meeting with Fatah and Hamas leaders in Gaza to try to resolve the dispute.
Meanwhile, a senior Israeli military official, who was briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said he expects Israel and the Palestinians to start coordinating the Gaza withdrawal in the next few weeks.
A high-level meeting by the two sides ended Monday without agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), in a speech in the United States on Tuesday, urged Abbas to work with Israel on the pullout.
Both sides are afraid that without proper preparations, Palestinian militants will open fire on Jewish settlers and soldiers during the evacuation.
The military official said Israel expects the Palestinian security services to deploy in large numbers in places where armed groups can launch mortar shells or rockets. He also said the military assumes that Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, who have hundreds of West Bank gunmen on their payroll, would try to interfere in the evacuation of four West Bank settlements.
With the evacuation less than three months away, few Gaza settlers have agreed to leave.
Jewish settlers barred a senior Sharon aide from entering the Gaza settlement of Kfar Darom to discuss the withdrawal. The aide, Ilan Cohen, proceeded to other settlements, where he spoke to settlers.
The military official said security forces would not tolerate violence by the settlers and would immediately imprison offenders. He estimated 200 to 250 pullout opponents have moved to Gaza recently to bolster the resistance.
Also Wednesday, Amnesty International accused Israeli soldiers operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including unlawful killings, torture, destruction of property, obstruction of medical assistance and targeting of medical personnel.
The human rights group also said in its annual report that the deliberate targeting of civilians by Palestinian armed groups constituted crimes against humanity.
According to Amnesty's tally, Israeli forces killed more than 700 Palestinians in 2004, including 150 children. It said armed Palestinian groups killed 109 Israelis that year, including 67 civilians, eight of them children.