The Palestinian Authority declared its intention today to hold its first municipal elections, but said a general vote for the presidency and parliament could not be held as long as Israel maintains its military grip on Palestinian cities and towns.
The announcement was widely viewed as an effort to shore up the standing of the Palestinian leadership in advance of a meeting in Berlin next week between Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Korei and Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. national security advisor.
Korei is expected to tell Rice that despite Israel's contention that there is no negotiating partner on the Palestinian side, his government is eager to restart peace talks.
Palestinians are sensing an opportunity to reassert influence with the Bush administration after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's conservative Likud Party overwhelmingly rejected the Israeli leader's plan to withdraw troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip. Sharon has said he will revise his initiative, but not dramatically.
Palestinians fear that Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza would preclude negotiations on other key points, including the borders of their hoped-for state and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees. In his meetings with Rice and European officials, Korei intends to express renewed support for a peace proposal known as the "road map," which calls for reciprocal concessions by Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Korei said he would ask the four backers of that proposal — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — to help set the stage for Palestinian general elections, but again linked prospects for a vote to an Israeli military pullback.
"We want general elections as soon as possible, but we can't set a date for that as long as the occupation exists," Korei told reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
The Palestinians have not held a general election since 1996, when they picked Yasser Arafat as president and voted in a legislature. New elections were supposed to have been held in 2001, but have been repeatedly postponed due to the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now 43 months old.
The Palestinian minister for local affairs, Jamal Shoubaki, said the envisioned local balloting would be held in phases, beginning with a vote in the West Bank town of Jericho toward the end of the summer. Various municipalities in the Gaza Strip then would hold elections, he said.
Palestinians last voted for local officials in the West Bank in the mid-1970s, during the full Israeli military and civil rule that predated the existence of the Palestinian Authority. Once Arafat's government came into being, it appointed mayors and other local leaders.
Finding anyone who wants such positions these days might be difficult. The fighting with Israel has decimated the Palestinian security forces, and many cities have been hit by a wave of lawlessness. The mayor of the West Bank's largest city, Nablus, quit earlier this year, citing an inability to maintain public order.
Holding elections, even local ones, carries an element of risk for Arafat because of the popularity of militant groups such as Hamas, which could be reflected in the outcome of the vote. In addition to its armed struggle against Israel, Hamas runs a network of social services that have given it enormous popularity, particularly in impoverished Gaza.
In Gaza today, Israeli military bulldozers demolished 13 more Palestinian homes along a roadway where a pregnant Jewish settler and her four young daughters were killed by gunmen May 2, the day of the Likud referendum. The Gaza settlers have demanded that Palestinian structures near the road be torn down so snipers cannot use them for cover.
Palestinians said dozens of people have been left homeless by the demolitions.
Palestinians in Gaza, like many other Arabs, have been shocked and infuriated by revelations of abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops. In a sign of that anger, authorities in Gaza City said more than 30 graves at a Commonwealth military cemetery for World War I dead had been desecrated.
Photographs of U.S. and British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners were affixed to some half-smashed tombstones.