Speaking after the traditional midnight Christmas mass at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, Abbas said the Palestinian Authority had an iron-clad commitment to hold the parliamentary elections on time.

He said: "I assure our people that we will hold the elections on time. This is a commitment that we made upon ourselves and we are going to carry it out, God willing."
 
He added that the PA would not allow Israel or anybody else to interfere in the polls which are an internal Palestinian affair.
 
Chances for holding the elections as scheduled have improved significantly after Israeli officials indicated that authorities in East Jerusalem might allow the town's residents to cast their votes.

Israeli change

Ehud Olmert, Israel's deputy prime minister and a key adviser to Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, has been quoted as saying that Israel would allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to participate in the poll either through post offices or by travelling to Abu Dis or Eizariya, run by the PA, on the outskirts of the city.

Arab East Jerusalem is home to
nearly 200,000 Palestinians

Last week, Israeli officials, including a key aide to Sharon, said Israel would refuse to allow elections to take place in East Jerusalem as this would strengthen Hamas.
 
The change of mind on Israel's part seems to have occurred as a result of behind-the-scenes American pressure.
 
According to the Jerusalem-based Arabic daily Al-Quds, the Bush administration has pressurised Israel and the PA to ensure the elections are held on time, despite Hamas's participation.
 
The report has not been confirmed or denied by either Israel or the PA.
 
New election list

Meanwhile, Ahmed Qurei, the former Palestinian prime minister, has decided to form a new election list bearing the name Arafat List after the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Qurei resigned last week from
the official Fatah list

Qurei resigned last week from the official Fatah list saying he was not enthusiastic about the elections because of Israel's refusal to allow the people of East Jerusalem to take part in the polls.
 
However, sources in Fatah told Aljazeera.net that Qurei's resignation was the result of ongoing efforts to reunite the list with the Future List headed by imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan al-Barghuthi.
 
The two lists reached a preliminary agreement to field a single list headed by al-Barghuthi and not including many of the old-guard representatives such as Qurei.
 
Fatah is now awaiting a ruling by the general elections committee on whether it is lawful to merge the two lists.
 
A final decision is expected by Tuesday.

East Jerusalem polls

Meanwhile, an official from Sharon's office says Israel may allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote.

"Israel's final decision on the Palestinian election in Jerusalem will be taken when Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority definitely confirms that elections will be held on the scheduled date"

Ariel Sharon office official

"Israel's final decision on the Palestinian election in Jerusalem will be taken when Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority definitely confirms that elections will be held on the scheduled date," said the official on Sunday.

The source said the Sharon administration "will contemplate" the possibility of Palestinians in East Jerusalem voting at five polling stations in the Arab quarter of the city, which Israel occupied in 1967 and has since annexed.

"Israel has no intention of giving Mahmoud Abbas an excuse to cancel the election because he fears a victory for Hamas and allow him to accuse us before the international community of being responsible for his decision."

The source was speaking four days after a senior Israeli official said East Jerusalem voting would not be allowed for the 25 January parliamentary poll in which Hamas was standing for the first time.

Israel captured and then annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but the international community still regards the area, home to nearly 200,000 Palestinians, as occupied territory.