Mon, Jan 17, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Abbas' tough job ahead

NO REST Amid the continuing violence with Israel and resignations of 46 election officials, newly sworn-in Palestinian leader Abbas certainly has his work cut out for him

AP , Ramallah, Jerusalem, West Bank

A masked Palestinian militant tries to direct children during an Israeli army incursion into the al Zaitun area in Gaza City on Saturday. Six Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire during the raid.

PHOTO: EPA

Mahmoud Abbas' first hours in office were marked by a series of crises, from the resignation of 46 election officials who accused the ruling Fatah party of pressure to renewed violence that could threaten his leadership.

Abbas was sworn in Saturday as the new Palestinian leader while violence raged in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army killed eight Palestinians, and militants in Gaza fired homemade rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot, critically wounding a teenage girl.

Early yesterday, Hamas militants fired two more rockets at Sderot -- an Israeli town that is just a few kilometers from Gaza -- but no casualties or damage were reported.

The violence came as Israel launched a broad Gaza operation and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cut off ties with Abbas, demanding the new Palestinian leader rein in militants after they attacked an Israel-Gaza cargo crossing Thursday, killing six people.

The Palestinian election officials accused Abbas' campaign and intelligence officials of pressuring them to abruptly change procedures during the election -- including keeping polls open longer and allowing voters to cast ballots in any location, not just their hometown. The new rules gave Abbas supporters more opportunities to vote, they said.

The alleged irregularities did not fundamentally affect the final tally, the officials said.

The officials said they wanted to warn that such actions -- which apparently included gunshots ringing out at the election commission during the vote -- could easily be repeated during a parliamentary election in July.

"I was personally threatened and pressured," said Ammar Dwaik, the commission's deputy chairman. "I am therefore announcing my resignation publicly, so that everyone knows that in the upcoming legislative election, this could happen again."

Hamas issued a statement early yesterday morning that if there is not an immediate inquiry into the allegations -- one that would hold accountable those responsible -- it will be seen as an endorsement for future corruption.

"These mass resignations put a big question mark on the credibility of the voter turnout and the results," the statement said.

In his inaugural speech, Abbas condemned violence, urged an immediate cease-fire and said he was extending Israel his hand in peace.

Officials in Sharon's office said the speech was disappointing, because Abbas did not outline how he planned to stop attacks on Israel.

Abbas made only a vague mention of how he would deal with the violent groups that are dampening the optimism for peace that sprang up after Arafat died. Many wondered whether the window of opportunity created by Arafat's passing was already beginning to close.

Nahum Barnea, a leading political commentator for the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, warned that the militants in Gaza showed Abbas "who is the real boss hours after he was sworn in."

"Abbas' government is being buried under the girl from Sderot ... and the six that were killed Thursday at the Karni crossing. Unless he comes to his senses," Barnea wrote.

In his inaugural address, Abbas made a direct appeal to the Israeli people, telling them, "We are two peoples destined to live side by side." Abbas promised to be faithful to the Palestinian dream of establishing a state and demanded an end to the Israeli occupation, the assassinations of militants and the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

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