Israel to Allow Palestinian Voting in East Jerusalem

An Israeli official says Palestinians living in East Jerusalem will be able to vote in upcoming elections, and that some candidates will be allowed to campaign there. But Israeli authorities say they will not allow Hamas to stage political rallies in the Holy City.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Weeks before Palestinians hold an election there's an agreement involving a politically sensitive area: East Jerusalem. That's the part of the city that Israelis captured in a war almost four decades ago. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas says insisted there will not be elections unless Palestinians in East Jerusalem can participate and today Israel's defense minister announced that they can.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Today's decision to allow voting in East Jerusalem follows pressure from the United States and comes as campaigning is underway for the January 25th parliamentary election.

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GRADSTEIN: The streets of East Jerusalem were crowded yesterday with vendors hawking sweets and shoppers buying new clothes to celebrate the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which begins today. Just outside the Damascus gate, Palestinian candidates from the ruling Fatah party pasted large posters of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the walls.

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GRADSTEIN: Against a backdrop of the Al Aqsa mosque, the poster reads: `Fatah is the history and Fatah is the future.' That second part is being called into question as Fatah faces a stiff challenge from the Islamist Hamas movement, which is fielding candidates in the parliamentary elections for the first time. Jihad Abuznaid(ph), eagerly slapping on the Fatah posters, if one of the members of the young guard, which is challenging the older members of the party like Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. She's number 24 on the Fatah national list and is likely to become a Palestinian lawmaker. Abuznaid says the participation of Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem is critical to the upcoming vote.

Ms. JIHAD ABUZNAID: Our capital is Palestinian and we demand that we have the right to make campaign, we have the right to follow all the procedures of an election and we have the right to vote.

GRADSTEIN: About 250,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967 in a move that is still not recognized by most of the international community. Palestinians say East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Israel says it intends to retain control of a united Jerusalem. Yesterday, Israeli officials said Palestinians like Abuznaid can campaign in East Jerusalem as long as they coordinate first with police, but they say candidates from Hamas will not be allowed to campaign. As for voting, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says the decision to allow the vote in post offices in East Jerusalem answers needs on both sides.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman): Answers that will allow the Palestinian Authority to have its elections and for Israel to feel safe and secure, that we're not opening doors to terrorists, that we're not giving legitimacy to terrorist groups and that we are maintaining our sovereignty in Jerusalem.

GRADSTEIN: On the issue of campaigning, despite public pronouncements, Israel had already given in. On Friday, Hamas held a rally at the Kalandia checkpoint, which is within the Jerusalem municipal borders and police did not interfere. In the previous two elections, one for parliament in 1996 and one for Palestinian leader a year ago, Israel allowed residents of East Jerusalem to vote in post offices in the city. Palestinian leader Saeb Erekat says this is what Palestinians have been seeking for some time.

Mr. SAEB EREKAT (Palestinian Chief Negotiator): We have been trying our best to get the Israeli side to agree and having the elections in East Jerusalem in accordance with the previous elections.

GRADSTEIN: Privately, Israeli officials say they did not want to be the ones blamed if the Palestinian elections are canceled. Some in Fatah are urging Abbas to postpone the elections anyway because of ongoing chaos in the West Bank and Gaza and because they are worried that Hamas will win.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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