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Arafat Decrees Jan. 20 Elections

December 13, 1995

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Yasser Arafat on Wednesday ordered elections held Jan. 20 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the first time in Palestinians’ history that they will be able to pick a freely elected government.

The elections are a result of the Israeli-PLO agreement that gave the Palestinians self-rule, beginning with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho in May 1994.

Arafat, head of the interim PLO government, is widely expected to be elected president of the new Palestinian government. Voters also will choose an 82-member legislature, the Palestinian Council.

Critics argue that the election system is designed to help Arafat’s mainstream Fatah faction and deny the opposition adequate representation.

The main opposition group, the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas, hasn’t decided whether to field candidates. But at least one prominent Hamas member, Imad Falouji, announced this week that he would run.

In addition to gathering thousands of signatures, candidates will be required to pay steep registration fees _ $3,000 to run for president and $1,000 to run for the legislature.

Although Palestinians in east Jerusalem may vote, voting will be allowed only on the periphery of the disputed sector.

The Palestinians want the eastern section of the city as their capital, but the Israelis, who captured it in a 1967 war, have vowed never to give it up.

Sources in Arafat’s office said he was planning to register Thursday at an undisclosed location for the presidential election.

``We are progressing on schedule and there is no obstacle (to) free elections,″ said Urban Affairs Minister Saeb Erakat, one of the organizers of the election.

Erakat said that Arafat would nominate a nine-member election commission and a five-judge panel Thursday to oversee election preparations and resolve any disputes.

Voter registration began last month. There are no figures available on the number who had registered among the more than one million eligible voters.

Ian Blakely, spokesman for the 700-member European Union observer mission that will monitor the vote at 1,500 polling stations, said he was ``pleased indeed that the decree has been issued.″

``There is no longer any doubt about the day of the election,″ he said.

Earlier Wednesday, chief EU observer Carl Lidbom said election preparations were going well, but fears remained that opposition groups may resort to violence to disrupt the voting.

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