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Palestinian elections appear headed for delay amid Jerusalem dispute, Fatah infighting

FILE PHOTO: Rival factions agree on procedures for Palestinian elections

RAMALLAH, West Bank/GAZA (Reuters) – The first Palestinian elections in 15 years appeared to be headed for a delay on Tuesday amid a dispute over voting in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem and splits in President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party.

Many Palestinians were sceptical from the start on whether parliamentary and presidential votes planned for May and July would even take place after they were announced by Abbas in January. Now 85, Abbas has been in power since 2005.

The timing of the long-awaited polls was largely seen as a bid to reset relations with Washington under President Joe Biden. Earlier this month, Biden began to restore U.S. aid to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza that was cut under predecessor Donald Trump.

Wasel Abu Youssef, an Abbas confidant and member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, confirmed to Reuters on Tuesday that the issue of voting in Jerusalem was a key factor in Abbas’s thinking.

“Any prevention or obstruction of holding elections in Jerusalem would entail a postponement,” he said.

Another Palestinian official close to Abbas, Hussein al-Sheikh, said Israel had officially informed the Palestinians that it would not permit balloting in Jerusalem, the contested city at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 but the move has not been recognised internationally. The area is still considered as occupied by most of the international community, although Israel deems Jerusalem its “eternal and indivisble” capital.

An Egyptian intelligence official told Reuters that the Palestinians informed Egypt that they plan to postpone the elections over the Jerusalem issue and that Abbas will announce the decision at a meeting of party leaders on Thursday.

A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said there has been no formal announcement on whether Israel will allow Palestinian voting in Jerusalem, as it did during the last elections in 2006.

FATAH INFIGHTING, HAMAS GAINS

Palestinian analysts say the Jerusalem dispute offers Abbas an excuse to call off elections he might lose.

After the elections were announced, his own Fatah party split, with internal challengers announcing their own list of candidates that threatens to undermine the official slate.

The split could jeopardise Abbas’s long grip on power by allowing the Islamist group Hamas to gain more seats from Fatah’s internal divisions – a key reason Fatah lost the previous elections.

“(Abbas) could certainly use (Jerusalem) as a pretext to delay the election,” Gaza political analyst Talal Okal said, adding that Abbas’s main concern “is Fatah, its separate lists, and fears that Hamas might get higher votes than Fatah.”

Hamas and other Palestinian parties have objected to any delay.

“There is no chance (we will) discuss a delay. What we should discuss is how to conduct the election in Jerusalem,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said.

Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 from Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in the West Bank. The two have been in a protracted power struggle since.

About 6,300 East Jerusalem Palestinians would need to cast ballots at Israeli post offices in the city, in accordance with past agreements, Palestinian officials say. The rest of the city’s 150,000 Palestinians can vote outside the city, they say.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Rami Ayyub in Tel Aviv and Ahmed Mohamed Hassan in Cairo; Writing by Rami Ayyub, Editing by Stephen Farrell and Angus MacSwan)

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