RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Monday he will delay Jan. 25 parliamentary elections if Israel bars Jerusalem Arabs from voting, the first time he has indicated he would postpone the balloting.
Senior members of the ruling Fatah party had urged Abbas to delay the elections, reflecting growing fears that the Islamic group Hamas will deal the movement a stinging blow in the polls.
"We all agree that Jerusalem should be included in the elections," Abbas said in Doha, Qatar, in comments carried on the Al-Jazeera satellite channel. "If it is not included, all the factions agree there should be no elections."
Israeli officials say no decision has been made about whether to allow Jerusalem's 200,000 Palestinians take part in the election.
In the past, they voted in a virtual absentee ballot system, because Israel says interim peace accords ban such political activity in Jerusalem.
A new factor is the participation of Hamas for the first time. Israel objects, noting Hamas responsibility for dozens of deadly suicide bombings and its charter calling for Israel's destruction.
Israeli officials say they oppose allowing voting in Jerusalem, which would appear as a step to legitimize Hamas. However, they also don't want to be blamed for sabotaging the election and are looking for a compromise.
Talk of a delay come amid a rash of chaos in the Gaza Strip, including a brief armed takeover of several government buildings Monday. The violence has threatened to weaken Abbas and benefit Hamas, which is running on a campaign pledging clean government and law and order. Abbas is on a tour of Gulf Arab countries.
"We can't say that because we have fears about the election that we want to delay it. We must work from now to strengthen Fatah to achieve success in the upcoming elections," said Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath, head of the movement's election campaign.
Fatah has been weakened by infighting and the growing chaos in Gaza, where gunmen have been kidnapping foreigners or taking over government buildings on a daily basis. A bad showing in the election would further weaken Abbas and his fractured party.
In new violence, about 200 Palestinian police, shooting into the air, briefly took over several government buildings Monday in Gaza to protest the Palestinian Authority's failure to impose law and order.
Police have been powerless to halt the violence that has gripped Gaza since Israel withdrew from the area in September. Last week, an officer was killed in a shootout between two rival families.
With Fatah increasingly in disarray, the party's powerful Central Committee met late Sunday to discuss the party's election prospects.
After the gathering, members sent a letter to Abbas demanding the election be postponed, said Abbas Zaki, a committee member. In the letter, they cited the declining security situation in Gaza and Israel's threat to prevent Jerusalem's Arabs from voting.
"Jerusalem for us is a major issue. We can't accept excluding it from our national elections," Zaki said.
Sovereignty over Jerusalem is one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with both sides wanting the holy city as their capital.
It appears that those leading calls for a delay in voting are embittered Fatah members left off the ballot to make room for a "young guard" of leaders who threatened to split from the party if they weren't given prime spots. Zaki, one of the leading voices in favor of a delay, lost his spot on the ballot in negotiations last week.
At Sunday's meeting, members of the central committee accused Abbas of making broad concessions to the movement's young guard, officials present at the meeting said.
Hani Masri, a political analyst for the Al-Ayyam daily, said the internal Fatah opposition poses a serious threat to the election.
Many of them want a delay because "they fear a defeat in competition with Hamas," he said, adding that some elements within Fatah may even use violence to derail voting.
"With this degree of chaos in the Palestinian territories, a few gunmen can ruin elections on election day, so I expect the elections to either be delayed early on, or for them to be disrupted by gunmen raiding ballots on election day," Masri said.
Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki said Fatah's inability to clean its ranks of corrupt officials and its inability to bring law and order to Gaza is further hurting the movement.
"If they delay for six months or one year ... Fatah won't be able to solve the chaos and the corruption, and I believe Fatah's internal problems will be complicated more. So it's in Fatah's interest to hold elections as soon as possible," Shikaki said.