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Israel OKs Palestinian Vote

The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday unanimously approved voting for Palestinian parliamentary elections in east Jerusalem, defusing a crisis that threatened to derail the Jan. 25 balloting.

The Cabinet vote was the first major political test for acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the likely political heir to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who remained comatose in a Jerusalem hospital Sunday, 11 days after suffering a massive stroke.

Attorney General Meni Mazuz was expected to notify Olmert later Sunday that he would continue to serve as acting prime minister through Israel's March 28 elections, Justice Ministry spokesman Yaakov Galanti said.

Mazuz will continue to define Sharon as temporarily, rather than permanently, incapacitated because doctors treating the prime minister at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital have not yet offered a prognosis, the Haaretz daily reported Sunday.

A declaration of permanent incapacitation, which would require Cabinet to elect a successor, would be irreversible.

Hospital spokesman Ron Krumer said Sunday that Sharon's condition -- critical but stable -- was unchanged. Sharon has failed to awaken since doctors began lifting his heavy sedation nearly a week ago, prompting concerns he might never emerge from his coma.

Sharon's abrupt departure from the political stage threw Israel and the Mideast into turmoil because he was seen as the Israeli politician most capable of negotiating with the Palestinians.

Olmert, a key Sharon's ally and a proponent of further territorial concessions to the Palestinians, has quietly been easing the turbulence created by Sharon's illness. Ending the crisis over voting in disputed Jerusalem was seen as a first test of his political skills.

Jerusalem is the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with both sides claiming the city as its capital. Israel initially planned to bar Palestinians from voting in east Jerusalem because candidates of the militant Hamas group were to appear on the ballot. The stance had provoked Palestinian threats to cancel the election.

But last week, Israel reversed course after coming under U.S. pressure.

According to the proposal Cabinet approved on Sunday, elections in Jerusalem will go ahead so long as members of armed groups, like Hamas, which call for Israel's destruction, won't be on the ballot.

"I welcome this decision," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said.

Shortly after the vote, police scuffled with Hamas members in Jerusalem's Old City, and detained three on suspicion of illegal campaigning, police said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials were to meet later Sunday to discuss the practical implications of the Cabinet decision, a Palestinian election commission official said.

Hamas is expected to make a strong showing in the overall balloting and possibly dominate parliament, having been bolstered by its clean-hands image and growing lawlessness in Palestinian-run areas.

Over the weekend, U.S. officials warned that millions of dollars of aid could be in jeopardy if the Islamic group were to join the Palestinian government.

With the east Jerusalem voting crisis resolved, Olmert faced another immediate test -- a standoff with Jewish settlers in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron, where 500 settlers live among 170,000 Palestinians.

Eight settler families were given until Sunday to evacuate a neighborhood they took over four years ago. They are to be removed forcibly within a month if they disregard the evacuation order, as is expected.

On Sunday, settlers set fire to empty Palestinian shops in the city's marketplace, witnesses said. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police were trying to prevent about 150 settlers, some of them masked stone-throwers, from entering the areas.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian mother and her armed son early Sunday in what appeared to be a mixup sparked by a village feud, residents said.

Soldiers, apparently thinking they had come across a militant hideout, fired at a house on the outskirts of the village of Rojib, near Nablus, where 20-year-old Fawzi Dwekat was standing guard with a rifle in the wake of arson attacks on the family's cars, residents said. The shots killed Dwekat and his 50-year-old mother, Nawal.

Residents said soldiers shot first, and Dwekat returned fire.

The military said initial reports indicated that an army patrol was shot at from a house in the village and returned fire, killing two people and wounding three.

Col. Yuval Bazak, a commander in the region, said the people who were killed were not on Israel's wanted list, but that forces found an M-16, a handgun and ammunition in the home.

"I am sorry about the mother who was killed. I assume she was not involved and should not have been harmed," Bazak told Army Radio. "We are investigating how the mother was hit."

Hundreds attended the funerals, including members of Hamas and the ruling Fatah party.

In other news, Israel on Sunday closed until further notice the main cargo terminal between Israel and the Gaza Strip, following intelligence warnings of a planned Palestinian attack, the military said.