GAZA (Reuters) -Israel could hinder voting in the occupied West Bank during a Palestinian legislative election in January if Hamas candidates take part, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in remarks published on Saturday.
"We will make every effort not to help (the Palestinians). I don”t think they can have elections without our help," Sharon was quoted by The New York Times as telling journalists at a meeting in New York.
Sharon said Israel might not remove roadblocks in the West Bank, making it difficult for Palestinians there to vote, if Hamas, which calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, runs in the January 25 ballot, the newspaper reported.
Hamas is widely expected to do well at the ballot box at the expense of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas” mainstream Fatah faction. Abbas hopes to move Hamas into the political mainstream and away from confrontation with Israel.
Sharon”s threats have caused deep concern within the Palestinian Authority, which is eager to demonstrate that it has embraced democracy on the road to statehood.
"We urge Sharon to stay out of our internal affairs," said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.
"We hope these elections will take place in the fairest and most honest atmosphere possible," he added.
Hamas made a strong showing in recent municipal elections and has said it would participate in the parliamentary poll for the first time.
"The Israeli occupation will shoulder the consequences and the responsibility for any intervention on the ground to undermine the election," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
"Undermining the elections will not weaken Hamas. On the contrary it will lead to escalating resistance against the occupation."
Sharon made similar remarks on Wednesday during a briefing to reporters who traveled with him from Israel, but stopped short of mentioning specific steps that could disrupt the election.
"I announced as clearly as I could that we formally oppose Hamas” participation in the election as long as it is not disarmed and has not canceled the Hamas charter, which is a horrible document," Sharon said on Wednesday.
In that briefing, he said Israel could not interfere with the vote in the Gaza Strip, where it completed a troop pullout on Monday.
"But in other places, we will not cooperate on matters related to the election," he said on Wednesday, without giving details.
Hamas suicide bombers have killed hundreds of Israelis during a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. But it has largely abided by a ceasefire that Abbas declared along with Sharon in February.
Sharon”s tough line on the election coincides with his own political battle in Israel”s Likud Party, where he faces a leadership challenge from right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu, who quit as finance minister in protest at the Gaza pullout.