1. GAZA EXIT POLLS SPELL TROUBLE FOR MAHMOUD ‘ABBAS… Exit polls are showing strong support for the Hamas terrorist organization in yesterday’s municipal elections in the Gaza Strip. The first-ever balloting in Gaza is also the first test of newly elected president Mahmoud ‘Abbas’s popularity and public confidence head-to-head with groups such as Hamas. Hamas and Islamic Jihad did not participate in the presidential election. Figures released by the independent Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed Hamas was in position to win three of the four biggest districts in Gaza, including one where the dominant Fatah faction headed by ‘Abbas had been expected to triumph. 110 seats on 10 municipal councils were up for grabs in the election. Losses by ‘Abbas on the magnitude predicted by the exit polls casts into doubt his ability to end Gaza-based terror, the key element to progressing in peace talks with Israel.
2. CONDOLEEZZA RICE SET TO VISIT THE MIDDLE EAST… Newly sworn-in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will visit Europe and the Middle East early next month. Rice will visit seven European countries before traveling to Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Despite the broad scope of the trip, which will cover February 3-10, the primary focus is the Middle East. The Bush administration sees the death of Yassir Arafat, the election of Mahmoud ‘Abbas and positive interaction between the Israelis and Palestinians as signs of optimism for restarting serious talks between the two sides. It is also sensitive to charges that too little effort was made to move the Israel-Palestinian track forward during the first term in office. Rice phoned a number of world leaders on her first day as Secretary of State, including Mahmoud ‘Abbas.
3. PALESTINIAN POLICE DEPLOY IN CENTRAL, SOUTHERN GAZA STRIP… The Palestinian Authority on Friday deployed its police force in the central and southern portions of the Gaza Strip. The move follows implementation of a prohibition against civilians carrying weapons in the P.A. Police moved into the two principle areas from which rocket and mortar fire aimed at Israeli targets has emanated, Rafah and Khan Younis. Palestinians lined the streets in Khan Younis taking in the sight of hundreds of policemen traveling in a convoy to their assigned destinations. There was a marked reduction in violent acts in the last week in areas of the Gaza Strip where Palestinian police were deployed last Friday. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is set to begin consultations on the transfer of security responsibilities in key cities to Palestinian authorities.