JERUSALEM, AP -Israel and Hamas, sworn enemies with a bloody history, have rewritten their rules of engagement for the Palestinian election campaign in Jerusalem, epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli police briefly detained three Hamas candidates and the militants spouted a little anti-Israeli rhetoric, an expression of the conflicting claims to Jerusalem. Yet both sides have avoided a head-on clash to ensure the Palestinian parliament election takes place Jan. 25 as planned — Hamas because it expects to make a strong showing, and Israel because it doesn’t want to upset the Bush administration.
On Sunday, Israel’s Cabinet voted to allow Palestinians to cast absentee ballots in Jerusalem, but barred Hamas from campaigning in the city because the Islamic militants are pledged to Israel’s destruction.
Later in the day, police picked up three Hamas candidates for questioning, tore down campaign banners and raided a charity they suspected was a Hamas front. On Monday, the candidates were released.
At home after his release, Mohammed Abu Teir, 55, said his brief detention had helped his campaign.
“It gave us the opportunity to give the people the picture of what is happening in Jerusalem, without even talking to our people,” said Abu Teir, who spent 25 years in Israeli prisons.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said the ultimate goal is to see the Palestinian election take place, suggesting Israel would find a way to settle any disputes over voting procedures or Hamas’ role.
“In light of the Palestinian Authority’s explicit commitment to disband Hamas and its terror infrastructure after and as a result of the elections, Israel will not provide the Palestinian Authority any excuse for postponement of the elections and evading this commitment,” Regev said.
Palestinian voting in Jerusalem is largely symbolic, since only about 5,000 of the city’s 230,000 Arab residents are eligible to cast ballots — a quota set when Israel and the Palestinians first negotiated the voting arrangements in the city in 1996. The compromise allowed 5,000 voters to mail absentee ballots from five post offices in the city, while the other eligible voters had to travel to nearby West Bank polling stations.
The arrangement was meant to allow both sides to keep their conflicting claims to east Jerusalem, the sector Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast War. Israel says it will never relinquish sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, while the Palestinians want to establish their future capital in the eastern sector.
Recent polls indicate that Hamas is gaining ground against Abbas’ ruling Fatah Party. A survey last week said Hamas would win 31 percent of the overall vote, compared to 35 percent for Fatah, with 22 percent undecided. That’s a 10-point gain for Hamas from a month ago.
On Jerusalem’s streets, there was no sign of Hamas, with the exception of a few boys handing out fliers near the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, out of the eyesight of Israeli police.
Abu Teir said his group has other ways of getting the message out. “Most of us preach in mosques, and we have university professors, doctors, students bodies, and we … go from house to house,” he said. “We are very well-organized, and not just confrontational.”
In its Jerusalem campaign, Hamas focuses on the city’s West Bank suburbs, which are part of the Jerusalem district on the Palestinian electoral map. Some 50,000 of the suburbs’ 160,000 residents are eligible voters.
During a recent stop in the West Bank community of Anata, cut off from Jerusalem by Israel’s separation barrier, Abu Teir addressed some 200 residents, many wearing the Islamic green basketball caps Hamas hands out as campaign gifts. “God is great,” the crowd chanted.
Hamas campaigners focus on corruption by the Palestinian Authority, playing down the violent conflict with Israel. Hamas has carried out scores of suicide attacks in Israel since its founding in 1987, killing hundreds of Israelis. But it has largely observed a truce during the past year, acknowledging that the Palestinians are worn out from hardships brought on by five years of fighting.
The U.S. and Europe consider Hamas a terrorist organization and have warned they may cut aid to the Palestinians if Hamas joins the Palestinian Authority after the election. However, Washington and the European Union have said Hamas should be allowed to compete in the election, at the same time urging the militants to disarm.
Hamas has said it won’t give up its weapons until Israel withdraws from all occupied land. However, with militant activity apparently on hold, at least until the election, Hamas is moving toward becoming a political party.
The Hamas campaign manager in Jerusalem, who would give only his nom de guerre, Abu Youssef, for fear of arrest, said the elections are key to cleaning up the group’s image.
“We need international legitimacy which we will get through the parliament,” Abu Youssef said.