In comments broadcast on Saturday, Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, said Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, must prevent Hamas participating in the elections on 25 January because the group had carried out numerous deadly attacks against Israel.

"The participation of Hamas in the elections can put us back 50 years," Shalom told Israel Radio. "Today is the time to make the tough decision, the strategic decision, to dismantle the terror infrastructure, to go to elections with the intent of afterward going to peace with Israel."

Foreign Ministry officials said on Friday that if Hamas were to become a dominant force in the Palestinian leadership, it would mean an end to the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

Not democratic

But Nabil Abu Rudaina, spokesman for Abbas, rejected the call to stop Hamas from running.

"The legislative elections will be carried out on time and all Palestinian sides have the right to participate in these elections. Otherwise, they would not be democratic"

Nabil Abu Rudaina, spokesman for the Palestinian president

"The legislative elections will be carried out on time and all Palestinian sides have the right to participate in these elections. Otherwise, they would not be democratic," he told Aljazeera on Saturday.

Hamas swept municipal elections this week in several West Bank areas, reflecting Palestinian dissatisfaction with the ruling Fatah party - which has led for 40 years - that many view as autocratic and corrupt.

The militant wing of Hamas has carried out several bombings in Israel during more than five years of fighting.

While the party has agreed in recent months to a ceasefire, its charter calls for Israel's destruction. The US considers it a terrorist organisation.

Shalom labelled as "very important" a decision on Friday by the US House of Representatives to tell the Palestinian Authority that it risked losing US financial aid and other support if it permitted Hamas to participate in the parliamentary elections.

US move criticised

But Abu Rudaina, the spokesman for the Palestinian president, said: "We call on the international community to impose pressure on the US administration and prevent it from complying with the decisions of the US House of Representatives as this does not serve the peace process nor the US efforts to maintain peace in the area."

Hamas also criticised the US threat, which Said Siyam, a senior Hamas leader, said was not new.

"The elections are an inter-Palestinian case. The United States does not have the right to intervene in this democratic process or in other internal affairs. We have the right to participate in the Palestinian elections and government"

Said Siyam,
a senior Hamas leader

He told Aljazeera: "The US administrations have been totally biased towards the Israeli occupation authorities for long years.

"The elections are an inter-Palestinian case. The United States does not have the right to intervene in this democratic process or in other internal affairs.

"We have the right to participate in the Palestinian elections and government, and nothing will stop us from doing so.

"We, Hamas movement, are a genuine part of the Palestinian people. The results of the municipal elections have proved that Palestinians have chosen and supported Hamas movement."

Fatah-Future joint list

Meanwhile, officials from the ruling Fatah movement and an offshoot party will meet on Saturday to negotiate uniting their two lists for the parliamentary elections, both sides said.

The agreement to meet reflects concern by officials from Fatah and the new Future party that Hamas is gaining popularity in the Palestinian street, officials said on condition of anonymity.

Fatah officials blamed their poor showing in the local elections this week on infighting after the young guard broke away from veteran party leaders earlier in the week to form Future.

Abbas, of Fatah, sent an envoy to Marwan al-Barghuthi, the Future leader, to request that the two sides negotiate a joint list, Fatah officials said on Saturday.

Al-Barghuthi, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail, agreed and officials from both sides were to meet later on Saturday.