Militants seek gains in Gaza vote

In municipal elections Thursday, voters chose between the moderate Fatah party and the militant Hamas.

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Less than three weeks after Mahmoud Abbas succeeded Yasser Arafat, residents in this war-scarred farming town and nine other Gaza municipalities returned to the polls Thursday in a second phase of local Palestinian elections.

Even though the balloting represents only a small fraction of Gaza's population, who are selecting local council members, observers say that if Hamas wins in Beit Hanoun and elsewhere, the militant group will gain an important foothold. A strong showing could give the militants an upper hand in talks with Mr. Abbas on a cease-fire in attacks against Israel.

"The momentum is what we are afraid of,'' says Zakaria Alagha, a member of the central committee of Abbas's Fatah party. "Any positive results for Hamas in municipal elections will be reflected in further relations between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization.''

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Hamas's decision to boycott the Jan. 9 vote for Palestinian president left Abbas without a formidable challenge, making the municipal contests a crucial indication of grass-roots support for the Islamic militants as well as for the ruling Fatah party.

The local vote comes as the new Palestinian president courts Hamas with an agreement on ending more than four years of violence, an accord considered essential if Abbas has any chance of winning concessions from Israel and consolidating his power. But Hamas is putting a political price on such a pact by demanding an unprecedented foothold in PLO institutions with veto power over any future peace accord with Israel.

A robust showing for Hamas in Gaza - considered stronghold of the Islamic militants - could raise the political price it asks of Abbas. In the first round of local voting in December, Hamas said it won control of half the 26 local councils, a claim disputed by Fatah and independent observers who believe the organization captured closer to one-third of the vote. Whatever the results, Hamas is expected to do better in Gaza.

"Today Hamas claims it represents at least 50 percent of the people in Gaza,'' said Eyad Saraj, a Gaza political analyst. "Hamas's normal standing is about 12 percent, but it has been inflated because of the violence and the lack of effectiveness of the [Palestinian] Authority.''

To be sure, the results of the municipal election will reflect a more complex picture than just the Fatah-Hamas rivalry. The largest two Palestinian political movements will be challenged by several smaller parties as well as a host of independent candidates.

"People vote differently in municipal elections and parliamentary elections, and that's why I don't think the results won't necessarily reflect the political orientation of the people," says Salah Abdel Shafi, a Gaza political analyst. "It's still too early to judge [Abbas'] leadership."

In rural communities like Beit Hanoun, clan loyalty will also play a prominent role. "I am not Hamas, and I am not Fatah,'' says Ashraf Masri, a taxi driver from Beit Hanoun. "I am for the Masri family."

With a population of 30,000, Beit Hanoun was one of the largest districts to take part in Thursday's balloting. But it is the village's position on the front-line of Palestinian uprising that gives an important platform to whoever controls the city council. Israeli tanks have destroyed orchards in an effort to silence rocket attacks by Palestinian militants, making the reconstruction effort a central campaign theme.

"All of Beit Hanoun was once green. Now it is a desert,'' said Khalid al-Zaanin, a farmer who said he's seen 30 dunams of his land razed.

Outside the polling center at the Beit Hanoun athletic club, campaign workers intermingled, their political affiliation identified by the yellow, green, and red baseball caps associated with Fatah, Hamas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, respectively. All were making promises about rebuilding Beit Hanoun. "[Hamas] will build schools, mosques, and a hospital for women,'' said Nader Saadat, who wore a sashe reading, "Islam is the Solution."

Inside the courtyard was a group of men huddled around a bulletin board that listed voters and their polling booths. Poll workers agreed that crowds lingering at the voting center indicated a stronger turnout out than for the presidential election. Polling officials announced late in the afternoon that 70 percent of registered voters had cast ballots, compared to 67 percent on Jan. 9.

"Today, the democracy is clearer and stronger than it was in the presidential election," said Talaat Zanin, an election monitor. "I hope this will succeed. The democracy is for our children."

That large turnout would further boost Hamas, which complained that the January presidential elections to replace Mr. Arafat were flawed because Abbas and Fatah refused to meet their conditions for participation.

"This will be a motivation which will enhance our issues, and our demands of the Palestinian leadership," said Ismail el-Kafrna, a Hamas candidate for the Beit Hanoun Council. In a local election, "the priorities of the people are local services, but of course people know who represent the martyrs and they support them."

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