Hamas, Fatah to Avoid Violence on Palestinian Election Day

The two main contenders in next week's Palestinian parliamentary elections — the ruling Fatah party and Hamas — pledged to avoid violence on voting day and work together afterward, but a Hamas leader ruled out peace talks with Israel.

The no-violence pledge was a tacit admission by Fatah that Hamas will be a significant factor in the new parliament. Hamas, running for the first time, has been steadily gaining ground on Fatah in the polls — an indication of voter dissatisfaction with the ruling party over widespread corruption and inefficiency.

Fatah has also been blamed for its inability to control violence in the Gaza Strip, some of it directly connected to the election.

In Nablus on Wednesday, a dozen Fatah gunmen took over the local court building, demanding that their representative, Jamil Tirawi, be restored to the 21st place on the Fatah voting list after he was dropped to 29th, witnesses said.

In the southern Gaza town of Rafah, a Palestinian was killed when he was shot in the head by Fatah gunmen firing in the air during an election rally, witnesses said.

In Ramallah, meanwhile, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told reporters he would resign if the new parliament blocks his efforts to make peace with Israel. That was a direct reference to a likely strong electoral showing by Hamas, which does not recognize the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East and has sent dozens of suicide bombers to launch attacks in Israel that have killed hundreds.

"I struggled and fought for Hamas to come to the legislature," Abbas said, adding that he doesn't mind if Hamas joins parliament as long as he can keep working for peace.

"I won't say if Hamas joins I will withdraw," he said. "There is a political program ... and if I feel I can't implement it, then staying in my chair is not the ultimate goal."

"Maybe Hamas will change its policy, no one knows," he said. "Maybe it will say it will accept negotiations."

However, a Hamas leader on Wednesday ruled out talks with Israel and threatened to kidnap Israeli soldiers. At a campaign rally in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar said the Islamic group "is not going to acknowledge the ownership of any inch of Israel on this holy land. We are not looking to Israel as a partner now or in the future."

He demanded that Israel release all Palestinian prisoners unconditionally. Otherwise, he said, "There is no option left except kidnapping soldiers and exchanging them for the detainees and prisoners."

Israel and the United States consider Hamas a terror group. Israel has protested Hamas' participation in the Jan. 25 elections and barred all militant groups from campaigning in Jerusalem.

Polls show that Abbas' Fatah Party is steadily losing ground to Hamas. A poll last week gave Fatah only 35 percent of the vote, compared to 31 percent for Hamas, a 10-point gain for the militant group within a month.

In Gaza, the scene of repeated incidents in which Fatah-linked gunmen have taken over government buildings and attacked election offices, both groups promised to leave their weapons at home on election day.

"We reassure our people that we will work jointly and together after the elections, God willing, to enhance political partnership and strengthen the Palestinian institutions, and to cooperate in the benefit of our people and case," a joint statement said.

The statement was prepared during a meeting between two of the main leaders of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent offshoot of Fatah, and senior Hamas members.

In Israeli politics, meanwhile, a poll showed support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima Party and the dovish Labor Party growing ahead of March 28 elections, while backing for the hawkish Likud Party was falling.

Kadima would get 43 of the 120 seats in the parliament, up one seat from a poll last week, according to the Dahaf survey published Thursday in the Yediot Ahronot daily. Labor would get 21 seats, an increase of four, and Likud 12 seats, down one, according to the poll of 500 Israelis.

The poll had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

Kadima officials have said they would prefer to form a coalition with Labor if they win. Sharon, who has been in a coma since suffering a stroke Jan. 4, left Likud in November to form Kadima.