Preelection Turmoil

Sunday, January 1, 2006

VIOLENCE in the Palestinian territories has been steadily mounting as a crucial democratic election approaches. On Wednesday a British human rights activist and her parents were abducted in the Gaza Strip, and held for two days. On Thursday a suicide bomber killed an Israeli soldier and two fellow Palestinians in the West Bank. On Friday protesting policemen stormed and briefly closed the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, the opening of which has been one of the few successes of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel has meanwhile declared the northern tip of Gaza a buffer zone and subjected it to regular artillery fire in an attempt to stop the launching of rockets at nearby Israeli towns; yesterday two Palestinians were killed.

The growing disorder can only heighten concerns about legislative elections scheduled for Jan. 25, in which Mr. Abbas's ruling Fatah party is to compete directly with the fundamentalist Hamas movement. Hamas, which had never competed in a Palestinian Authority election, benefits from the violence: In municipal elections last month it stunned Fatah by winning three large towns. Indications that Hamas could elect a large delegation, or even a majority, in the Palestinian parliament has alarmed both Israel and the "quartet" of international sponsors of the Mideast peace process, including the United States. Though it has mostly refrained from violence since early last year Hamas has refused to disarm or alter its doctrine denying Israel's right to exist.

Both Israel and Mr. Abbas have been tempted to stop the elections. Israel threatened recently to prevent voting in Arab

East Jerusalem because of Hamas's participation. With the quiet encouragement of Egypt's autocratic government, the Palestinian Authority quickly seized on that threat as an potential excuse to call off the vote. Both governments have since backed down, and rightly so. Though the Palestinian elections have risks, calling them off would almost certainly lead to even greater turmoil.

Already, too, democracy is showing its benefits. Faced with the possibility of defeat by Hamas, Fatah has been forced to overhaul the aging and corrupt cadre left behind by Yasser Arafat and install young reformers at the top of its legislative list. Their leader, the Israeli-imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, published a remarkable letter in Palestinian newspapers Friday apologizing for Fatah's mistakes and asking voters for another chance. Hamas itself is showing some pragmatism: Its newly elected council members supported the election last week of a Christian woman as mayor of Ramallah, the most important West Bank town. A senior Israeli army official recently predicted that if Hamas did win the elections it would continue to curtail attacks on Israel.

The Bush administration prepared a "quartet" statement with the European Union, United Nations and Russia last week that strongly supported the elections and urged Israel to allow voting in Jerusalem. At the same time, the statement reiterated a previous statement calling on Hamas to disarm and recognize Israel's existence, and it added that the future Palestinian cabinet "should include no member who has not committed"

to accept those principles. That was the right place to draw the line. Hamas should be given the chance to become a democratic movement, but Palestinians should understand that any retreat from recognition of Israel will mean the loss of vital international support.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company