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Palestinian Elections Face Possible Delay

January 5, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Palestinians followed reports of Ariel Sharon’s deteriorating health Thursday with a mix of apprehension and glee, and some officials said they feared the Israeli prime minister’s massive stroke could disrupt Palestinian parliamentary elections Jan. 25.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas contacted Israeli officials Thursday to express concern over Sharon’s deteriorating health, an Abbas aide said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia wished Sharon a speedy recovery, while militant leaders cheered the news of the Israeli leader’s illness and Gaza school children handed out candy to celebrate. Ordinary Palestinians were divided over whether Sharon was Israel’s greatest villain or their best chance for peace.

Although Sharon became the first Israeli leader to hand over land the Palestinians claim for their future, he has long been reviled in the Arab world for his harsh actions against Palestinians and decades-long championing of Jewish settlements.

Sharon, 77, was in serious condition at a Jerusalem hospital Thursday after seven hours of surgery to stop massive bleeding in the brain. After the operation, Sharon was taken to intensive care, where he remained sedated and on a respirator.

Sharon’s associates said they did not expect the prime minister to recover enough to resume his post. Vice Premier Ehud Olmert assumed Sharon’s duties.

Two U.S. envoys were to have met with Sharon on Thursday evening but postponed their trip, which apparently was designed to settle a dispute between Israel and the Palestinians over Palestinian voting in Jerusalem.

Abbas, already under pressure at home to postpone elections likely to batter his ruling Fatah party, has said he might cancel the balloting if Israel makes good on a threat to bar voting in Jerusalem. Underlying the dispute over voting procedures are competing claims by both sides to the city as a capital.

Palestinian officials have said they expected the U.S. envoys to try to persuade Israel to allow voting in Jerusalem. ``We hope that this (Sharon’s illness) will not affect what we had expected of the Israelis,″ said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. If Olmert puts off a decision on Jerusalem, ``it means the Palestinian election is going down,″ Erekat said.

Hamas militants, running for the first time in a general election, are expected to deliver a major drubbing to Abbas’ corruption-tainted Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian politics for more than four decades.

Palestinian militants said they hoped Sharon would not return to office.

A Hamas spokesman, Mushir al-Masri, said he foresaw a change for the better if Sharon were to exit the political stage. ``If Sharon dies, no doubt this new development will change the world political map, and to the good, because a dictator and a murderer will be departing,″ al-Masri said.

Hamas has largely suspended its attacks on Israel in the past year because it wants to soften its militant image as it heads into elections. The smaller Islamic Jihad, which is not contending in the elections, has been responsible for all six suicide bombing against Israel during the 11 months a just-expired truce was in effect.

``The resistance is not linked to Sharon or to any person,″ said Khaled Al-Batch, an Islamic Jihad spokesman. ``Resistance is linked to the existence of the occupation, and our resistance will continue as long as the occupation exists.″

Before he fell ill, Sharon _ who suffered a minor stroke on Dec. 18 _ had been expected to lead his Kadima Party and its peacemaking agenda to a solid victory in March 28 Israeli elections. That vote was called after Sharon defected from the hardline Likud Party he formed 30 years ago, despairing of persuading it to make more concessions to the Palestinians.

Qureia said Palestinians ``hope he will recover.″

``We are looking all the time for a leader in Israel to be in favor of peace and ready to sit with Palestinians to start very serious and credible negotiations,″ Qureia said. ``No doubt, this is an event that will have implications not only for Israel, but the entire region.″

Palestinians across the Arab world were glued to the radio and television, awaiting developments on Sharon’s medical condition.

``If Sharon passes, it will affect the peace process,″ said Jalal Salman, a spokesman for An-Najah University in Nablus. ``Sharon went a long way down the path to peace, and he is the only Israeli leader capable of making peace with the Palestinians.″

Omar Musleh, an Islamic University student in Gaza City, said he rejoiced all night. ``I was watching TV closely for an announcement of Sharon’s passing,″ he said. ``I am going to distribute sweets, and I am going to go to the mosque immediately to pray to God. Finally, God has answered thousands of worshippers’ prayers to punish this criminal.″

Despite the hatred for Sharon in the Arab world, Pan-Arab satellite television broadcasters carried largely straightforward, nonstop live coverage of his illness.

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