Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Friday that his government will refuse to assist the Palestinian Authority in holding legislative elections in January if the militant group popularly known as Hamas is allowed to participate.
"We will never agree that this terrorist organization, this armed terrorist organization, will participate in the elections," Sharon told a group of U.S. journalists during a nearly 11/2-hour session, referring to Hamas, which is formally called the Islamic Resistance Movement. He said that if Hamas is allowed to participate, then Israel will not lift roadblocks on the West Bank or take other measures to smooth the way for Palestinian elections.
"I don't see how they can have elections without our help," Sharon said. "We will make every effort not to help them in their elections."
Sharon added that he had no control over voting in Gaza, which Israel vacated last month after 38 years of occupation. He said Israel would tolerate Hamas's participation only if it gives up its arms and renounces its goal of destroying the Jewish state. "An armed organization doesn't become democratic once they participate in the election," Sharon said, calling the Hamas charter "one of most terrible documents that exists."
Hamas, which has an armed wing and a political wing, has participated in local elections but plans to test its electoral strength for the first time in parliamentary elections. Hamas has claimed credit for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza; tens of thousands of its supporters rallied Friday to celebrate the pullout. Hamas, which provides social services throughout Gaza, is viewed by many Palestinians as less corrupt and more efficient than the Fatah organization of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Sharon's vow, which he has privately repeated to President Bush and other world leaders attending the U.N. General Assembly this week, appears to conflict with the U.S. position that the Palestinian Authority should decide who can participate in its elections. But U.S. officials declined to comment specifically on Sharon's remarks. Sharon faces a tough challenge in his own party from former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has criticized the Gaza withdrawal as harming Israel's security.
"Hamas is a terrorist organization that should disarm and renounce violence," said National Security Council spokesman Frederick L. Jones II, adding that U.S. officials will never talk to elected officials who belong to terrorist groups. "A decision as to who can participate in a [Palestinian Legislative Council] election obviously is up to the Palestinian Authority. We do not believe that a democratic state can be built when parties or candidates seek power not through the ballot box but through terrorist activity, as well."
During the meeting with reporters, Sharon reiterated his view that large Jewish settlements on the West Bank will remain forever part of Israel in any peace deal. The U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map" calls on Israel to freeze settlement growth after Palestinians disarm militant groups.