Atul Aneja

Hamas poses a serious challenge to the mainstream Fatah party

DUBAI: An air of political uncertainty hangs over the Palestinian territories with radical Islamic group, Hamas, posing a serious challenge to the mainstream Fatah party and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hinting that the parliamentary poll could be postponed.

Campaigning for the January 25 elections has commenced on Tuesday, but Mr. Abbas told the Al Jazeera television network in the Qatari capital, Doha, that polls would be postponed if the Israelis prevented Palestinians living in Jerusalem from voting.

Mr. Abbas' comments came following Israeli ambivalence on whether the nearly 200,000 Palestinians living in Jerusalem would be allowed to cast their ballots. Israeli officials said they were disinclined to allow voting because Hamas, which officially stands committed to the destruction of Israel, was contesting the polls. Analysts, however, point out that a compromise could be reached, as the Israeli side would not like to be blamed for sabotaging elections.

Independents

Hamas candidates in Jerusalem were not contesting under their party's banner but, instead, as independents. Despite the Fatah's bitter rivalry with Hamas, Mr. Abbas said all Palestinian factions would boycott elections if Jerusalem residents were prevented from voting. In Doha, a meeting between the Palestinian President and Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal had been scheduled to resolve the issue.

The demand for a postponement has also come from within Fatah ranks. The Central committee of the party, which met on Sunday, sent a letter to Mr. Abbas seeking a delay in the election because of the deteriorating security situation in Gaza and the possible exclusion of Palestinians in Jerusalem in the elections by Israel. The Hamas responded strongly to the reference to the Gaza situation in the letter and said, "The excuse of the security situation and anarchy in the Palestinian Authority [should] not be used to postpone the elections."

While the Hamas still trails the Fatah in opinion polls, the gap between the two has been narrowing down. A survey three weeks ago gave Fatah a 17-point lead over Hamas but the gap had narrowed down to 10 per cent in a fresh poll that was conducted on Sunday.

The unstable situation in Gaza, which was evident in numerous incidents of street fighting, takeover of government buildings by armed groups, an attack on the United Nations office and a number of kidnappings of westerners, is likely to strengthen Hamas' position in the polls.