But the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations stopped short of backing Israeli demands that the group Hamas be barred from the polls unless it disarms and amends a charter calling for Israel's destruction.  

Ministers of the so-called Quartet said in a statement after talks at UN headquarters that the Palestinians should maintain law and order after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, a pullout completed on 12 September after 38 years of occupation.

The Quartet, borrowing terminology from a Middle East peace road map it has sponsored, also urged the Palestinian Authority to "dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure".

Cautious Abbas

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that forcibly disarming powerful resistance groups would lead to civil war, and that he prefers to co-opt them into the security services and mainstream politics.

Palestinian fighters have so far
refused to disarm

At a news conference on behalf of the group, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: "Ultimately, those who want to be part of the political process should not engage in armed group or militia activities, for there is a fundamental contradiction between such activities and the building of a democratic state."  

Asked about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's threat not to facilitate voting in the occupied West Bank if an armed Hamas runs, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "We understand this is a transition and we think everybody else understands this is a transitional process.

"We have to give the Palestinians some room for the evolution of their political process."

Hamas is widely expected to make a strong showing at the polls at the expense of Abbas' mainstream Fatah faction, an outcome likely to harden Israel's resolve not to resume talks on Palestinian statehood until he cracks down on the resistance fighters.  

A UN official at the meeting said the Quartet was "walking a fine line" over disarming before the elections because they did not think Abbas was strong enough to take on the task.

Disappointment
 
Mustafa al-Barghouthi, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative, told Aljazeera from Ram Allah that Palestinians were disappointed at the Quartet's statement, which he described as being "similar to the Israeli position in many points". 
 

Al-Barghouthi blasted the 
Quartet for pro-Israel bias 

"First, the Quartet talks about an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, while what has happened in Gaza is only redeployment.
 
"The statement has not mentioned the necessity of freedom of movement, border crossing, and the release of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons," he said. 
 
"Second, the statement has not set a mechanism to continue negotiations. We hoped it would call for an international conference. It has hardly called for experts meeting in Moscow," he added.
 
"Third, it has positively responded to the Israeli calls of placing conditions for participation in the Palestinian elections," al-Barghouthi said. 
 
He also criticised the statement for adopting the Israeli viewpoint regarding armed groups which may be interpreted by Israelis as a green light to interfere in Palestinian domestic affairs.

Israel may then intervene in the Palestinian electoral process, which should be a purely Palestinian process, he said. 
 
"We do not allow any external side to intervene in these elections," he added.
 
"Palestinians are the only ones allowed to carry out these democratic elections," he said.