Ben Hubbard
The Associated Press
February 1, 2011 - 1:00am

The Western-backed Palestinian government in the West Bank said Tuesday it will hold local council elections "as soon as possible" — a surprise move reflecting fears that massive anti-government protests in Egypt could inspire unrest here, too.

The announcement was one of many responses among the region's Western-backed governments — many with questionable legitimacy and limited popular support — to reduce the chances their own people will rise up against them.

In neighboring Jordan, hereditary monarch King Abdullah II fired his government following street protests and ordered an ex-prime minister to launch immediate political reforms.

The Palestinian Authority has not held elections since 2006, leaving the president and members of parliament in office after their elected terms ended.

In Tuesday's announcement, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's Cabinet said it would set dates for local elections during its next session, probably next week.

Fayyad hopes to hold the vote in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Hamas, which rules Gaza and is in a bitter rivalry with the West Bank government, said Fayyad has no right to call for elections.

The Palestinian Authority — a huge recipient of American and European aid — has had a spotty record with democracy in recent years.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas canceled local elections in the West Bank in 2010 when it appeared that his Fatah movement would lose key seats to independents.

Fatah has been burned twice before by heading into elections despite warnings of impending defeat. Hamas scored heavily in 2005 municipal elections and won a strong majority in the Palestinian parliament the next year.

Elections have not been held in the territories since. Abbas' four-year term expired in 2009, though it has been extended indefinitely. The parliament's term expired in 2010, though it, too, continues to serve.

Further complicating matters, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force in 2007 and set up a rival government. Egyptian-sponsored efforts to reconcile the two governments have repeatedly failed.

Before Tuesday, West Bank officials said they couldn't hold elections while the two territories remained divided.

Tuesday's announcement did not mention presidential or parliamentary elections, though Abbas aide Nimr Hamad said the division prevented these from taking place.

Hamas blasted the announcement, saying no vote could be held until the territories are united under a single government.

"Elections are supposed to come after reconciliation has been reached, as part of that reconciliation," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told The Associated Press.

The announcement's timing suggested it came in response to the days of massive street protests in Egypt calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Cabinet Secretary Naim Abu al-Hommos denied any link, telling The Associated Press the Cabinet had been "waiting for the right atmosphere" to hold elections.

Also on Tuesday, a Gaza activist said Hamas police prevented a handful of people from demonstrating in solidarity with Egyptian protesters.

Asma al-Ghoul said she and a small group of demonstrators had gathered Monday in central Gaza City when police came to stop them. She said police detained and roughed up some demonstrators.

New York-based Human Rights watch called on Hamas to "stop arbitrarily interfering with peaceful demonstrations about Egypt or anything else."

Hamas police had no comment.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which considers Egypt an ally, put down a similar protest this week — reflecting fears of unrest among its own population.


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