Two Palestinian factions, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, said on Tuesday that they would not take part in the Palestinian presidential election set for Jan. 9, a decision that could complicate efforts to hold a peaceful and orderly campaign.
Hamas also said it had no intention of suspending its attacks against Israel in the weeks before the election, in which Palestinians will elect a new leader of the Palestinian Authority to replace late president Yasser Arafat.
In a separate development, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel indicated that if the new Palestinian leadership cracks down on violence, he would be willing to work with them on his plan to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip.
"If in time we see that there is a Palestinian leadership that is willing to fight terror, we can have security coordination and an agreement regarding the territory," Sharon told a gathering of officials from his Likud Party, Reuters reported.
Sharon refused to deal with Arafat, who he said had encouraged violence. He has insisted that Israel would leave Gaza unilaterally.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the new head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, held talks with Hamas leaders on Tuesday night at his Gaza City office on a range of issues Palestinians are working through following Arafat's death. Abbas is considered the strongest candidate to replace Arafat.
But the Hamas leaders, who rarely appear in public for fear of an Israeli attack, said they would not participate in the January election. Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel, has refused to be part of the Palestinian Authority, which was a product of the Oslo accords, a 1993 interim peace agreement with Israel that Hamas rejects.
"This election is illegal," said Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader. "This election is a continuation of Oslo, which is over. It is not acceptable to go on with this."
Islamic Jihad, another faction that has carried out many attacks against Israel, also said it wanted nothing to do with the Palestinian presidential election.
"We won't participate in the presidential elections because any group that does this is obliged to negotiate with Israel and the Americans, and this goes against our position," said Nafez Azzam, an Islamic Jihad leader.
The Palestinian leadership is hoping for calm as the election approaches, but there are fears that either fighting with Israel or internal Palestinian clashes could make it difficult to campaign freely and hold a fair election.