Palestinian municipal elections set for Oct. 20

The West Bank-based Palestinian government decided Tuesday to hold long-delayed municipal elections on Oct. 20, deepening the political split with Gaza's militant Hamas rulers.

It was the latest sign that attempts at Palestinian unity are bogged down. Hamas quickly denounced the decision and declared it would not permit local elections in Gaza.

Palestinians have had separate governments since Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007, leaving Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with only the West Bank. Presidential and legislative elections were meant to be the centerpiece of reconciliation efforts that have been stalled for over a year.

Municipal elections are not part of the reconciliation deal, but Hamas does not want to hold them before that agreement is implemented.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Salah Bardawil said Tuesday's decision creates new obstacles for reconciliation. "Hamas will not participate in these elections because this is a violation of Palestinian law, and the movement will not allow it (municipal elections) in Gaza," he said.

The existence of the rival governments is one of several obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Israel has said it could never implement a future deal as long as Hamas rules Gaza. In any case, negotiations have been frozen for more than three years, and there are no signs they will resume.

In the West Bank, Abbas hopes local elections will help revive his flagging Fatah movement. The last round of local elections in the West Bank and Gaza was held in 2005. In 2010, Abbas called off municipal elections at the last minute when it became apparent that Fatah could not win them. Fatah feels more confident now that it can do well.

Tuesday's decision on municipal elections came a week the Hamas government halted voter registration in Gaza, meant to prepare for the general elections. Hamas took the step over claims that its supporters in the West Bank were being harassed and detained by the Abbas government.

The Palestinian Authority decided to move forward with local elections because "you cannot hold the elections hostage to Hamas forever," said government spokesman Ghassan Khatib.

West Bank-based Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said he hoped Hamas would reconsider and allow voting in Gaza.

Despite repeated expressions of good will, Abbas and Hamas leaders in Gaza have not taken the required steps to move forward with reconciliation.

Under a deal reached earlier this year, Abbas was to head an interim government for several months ahead of general elections. Despite the agreement, Hamas leaders have balked at giving up some of their power to Abbas. The Palestinian president, meanwhile, appears hesitant to forge an alliance with the internationally shunned Islamic militants for fear of losing crucial Western support.