JERUSALEM â€” The Islamic militant group Hamas has rejected the idea of postponing Palestinian elections ahead of a leadership meeting Thursday in which President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party is expected to push for a delay, citing a dispute with Israel over voting in east Jerusalem.
Hamas is expected to perform well in the May 22 parliamentary elections because of widening divisions within Fatah. Seizing on the sensitive issue of voting in east Jerusalem could offer a pretext for Abbas to call off the first Palestinians elections in 15 years.
Israel has not said whether it will allow voting in east Jerusalem but has expressed concern about Hamas’ growing strength. Israel and Western countries view Hamas as a terrorist group and would likely boycott any Palestinian government that includes it.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, Hamas said voting is a "fundamental national right."
Hamas said voting must take place in east Jerusalem but rejected the idea that it required Israel’s permission. Instead, it called for the leadership to explore ways of "forcing the elections in Jerusalem without the permission of or co-ordination with the occupation."
It also issued a veiled warning to Abbas without mentioning him by name, saying Hamas "will not be party to any postponement or cancellation and will not provide cover."
The responsibility for any such decision "will rest with those who take it in response to the veto of the occupation,” it said.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza, in the 1967 war, territories the Palestinians want for their future state. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and views the entire city as its capital, barring the Palestinian Authority from operating there. The Palestinians consider east Jerusalem their capital.
According to interim peace agreements reached in the 1990s â€” which were rejected by Hamas â€” some 6,000 Palestinians in east Jerusalem submit their ballots through Israeli post offices. The other 150,000 can vote with or without Israel’s permission.
Fatah has said the elections cannot be held without Israel giving express permission for east Jerusalem residents to vote. Its opponents have called for creative solutions, such as setting up ballot boxes in schools or religious sites.
The dispute has taken on greater import since the start of the holy month of Ramadan, as Muslim worshippers have clashed with Israeli police over restrictions on gatherings.
Abbas is expected to make a final decision following a meeting with leaders of Hamas and other factions late Thursday.
The elections, and a presidential vote planned for July 31, offer a rare opportunity for the Palestinians to empower a new leadership and potentially chart a different course in their stalled, decades-long struggle for independence.
The 85-year-old Abbas and his inner circle of Fatah figures, now in their 60s and 70s, have dominated the Palestinian Authority for nearly two decades. They have failed to advance Palestinian hopes for statehood, heal a 13-year internal rift with Hamas, lift the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza or empower a new generation of leaders.
The last elections, held in 2006, saw Hamas win a landslide victory after campaigning as a scrappy underdog untainted by corruption. That sparked an internal crisis culminating in Hamas’ seizure of Gaza the following year, which confined Abbas’ authority to parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Hamas’ popularity has fallen in the years since, as conditions in Gaza have steadily deteriorated. But it has remained unified and disciplined even as Fatah has split into three rival parliamentary lists.
Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and has fought three wars with it since seizing control of Gaza. It has also carried out scores of attacks over the last three decades that have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians.
Associated Press reporter Jelal Hassan in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed.
Joseph Krauss, The Associated Press