not unexpected news from the holy land

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    Israel threat to Palestinian elections
    By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem
    09 January 2005

    Israel yesterday threatened to cancel its promised military withdrawal in the occupied territories, designed to ensure free elections today of a new Palestinian president, after the fatal shooting of an off-duty soldier near the West Bank city of Nablus.

    The leaders of 800 international monitors overseeing the poll were warned by a senior aide to Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, that it might have to reverse its plan for a widespread lifting of restrictions if militant attacks continue.

    The move came as Palestinian officials and human rights groups complained that in many parts of the West Bank Israel had failed to change troop deployments or checkpoint procedures to facilitate the poll, the first of its kind since Yasser Arafat was elected president in 1996.

    Mahmoud Abbas, the 69-year-old chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, is the favourite to win the first-past-the-post ballot. Around 1.8 million electors are eligible to cast their votes at 3,000 polling stations throughout Gaza and the West Bank from 7am today.

    Israeli forces were still hunting for the gunmen who fired at two civilian vehicles, shooting dead one soldier and wounding three others. The army said that the men had been on holiday, and added that a civilian travelling in a second car had been "lightly" wounded. The al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades - linked to the Fatah organisation of which Mr Abbas is the candidate - claimed responsibility for the attack.

    The Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat complained that Israel was not keeping its promise and that there had been no real changes on the ground. The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said that reports from its West Bank field workers showed that checkpoints were as normal and in some cases had been augmented by new ones.

    But the army insisted that its plan to ease restrictions was intact. An Israeli Defence Forces spokesman added: "If there is terrorist activity it will put the whole process in jeopardy and make it difficult for Palestinians to carry out these elections."

    A spokesperson for the EU monitoring group, led by former French prime minister Michel Rocard, said that the only case they knew of where essential election deliveries of ballot boxes and other materials had been delayed had been because of a curfew in eight villages in the area of Friday's shooting. The materials had now been delivered.

    She added that monitors had been withdrawn from the Khan Yunis area of southern Gaza after reports that two Spanish journalists had been kidnapped by a group of Palestinians in the area and taken away in a car.
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