"We will make every effort not to help (the Palestinians). I don't think they can have elections without our help," Sharon was quoted by The New York Times as telling journalists at a meeting in New York.

Sharon said Israel might not remove roadblocks in the West Bank, making it difficult for Palestinians there to vote, if Hamas, the popular resistance group, runs in the 25 January ballot, the newspaper reported.

Hamas made a strong showing in recent municipal elections and has said it will participate in the parliamentary poll for the first time.

 

"I think he is afraid that Hamas's participation in the elections will strengthen the collective will and immunity of the Palestinian people vis-à-vis Israeli insolence," said Hamas Gaza leader Mahmud al-Zahar.

 

He told Aljazeera.net that Sharon had no right to interfere with Palestinian elections just as Palestinians had no right to interfere in Israeli elections.

 

Hamas condemnation

 

Sharon made similar remarks on Wednesday during a briefing to reporters who travelled with him from Israel, but stopped short of mentioning specific steps that could disrupt the election.

"I announced as clearly as I could that we formally oppose Hamas participation in the election as long as it is not disarmed and has not cancelled the Hamas charter, which is a horrible document," Sharon said on Wednesday.

 

Hamas leaders condemned Sharon's remarks as "a brazen and blatant interference in Palestinian internal affairs". 

Despite assassinations of its
leaders, Hamas remains popular

 

"If he wants to play the game of imposing conditions, then we have a thousand conditions we would want Israel to meet.

 

"First of all, Israel must disarm all these thugs and child killers (Jewish settlers), then all right-wing and religious parties in Israel that deny the very existence of Palestine and its people would have to be banned and dissolved.

 

"Then Israel would have to abandon the biblical ideology which views non-Jews as water carriers and wood hewers."

 

Al-Zahar said Sharon's remarks would only strengthen Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinian people, a view supported by PA officials.

 

"I will tell Sharon that the more he pours his bile upon Hamas, the more love the Palestinian masses will give the movement."

 

Another Hamas leader urged Israel to leave the Palestinians alone and respect their rights to hold transparent elections.

 

"Israel claims that it is the democratic state in the region, but in fact it fights democracy in Palestine," said Muhammad Ghazal, a Hamas spokesman based in the West Bank town of Nablus.

 

"If we win the Palestinian elections, our top priority will be rebuilding the economic and social cultural life, rebuild what Israel has destroyed. We are not thinking of destroying Israel." 

 

Rein in

 

For its part, the PA called on the international community, particularly the Quartet (US, EU, Russia and UN) to "rein in Israel's arrogance and insolence."

The PA did not mince words
condemning Sharon's speech

 

"Israel should understand that our elections are none of its business. We have our election laws, and we will act in accordance with these laws, not Israeli whims and dictates," said Muhannad Abd al-Hamid, a PA spokesman.

 

Abd al-Hamid accused the Israeli government of wanting to "control the Palestinians via remote control like the defunct apartheid regime in South Africa did with black townships".

 

"You see all our friends from South Africa who come here conclude that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is a hundred times worse than anything done by the former White supremacist regime."

 

Earlier, Palestinian negotiator Saib Uraiqat was quoted as saying that any Israeli interference would only hurt the PA leadership and strengthen Hamas.

 

"I urge the Israelis to stay out of our elections and our internal affairs, and not to put their noses in this. Our elections will be a turning point toward political pluralism and toward maintaining law and order." 

 

The American factor

 

Some Israeli political analysts believe that Sharon will not embark on a bold step as such unless he can secure American backing beforehand.

 

This is the view of Yossi Alpher, a noted Israeli current affairs commentator.

 

"I don't think the Americans will back Sharon on this. The Americans have already allowed Islamic militias in Iraq and Lebanon to take part in elections, and some would argue that Hamas is no exception."

 

Alpher told Aljazeera.net that the issue of Hamas's inclusion in the Palestinian political discourse concerned not only Israel, but the overall US policy of democratic reform in the entire Arab world. 

 

"To what extent he (Sharon) will insist on this is not clear to me at this point. However, I think that if he continues to push to outlaw and disenfranchise Hamas, he will create frictions with the Bush administration."

 

With additional reports from Reuters