West Bank vote to gauge Hamas

Thursday's local election amid new attacks is seen as a barometer of Palestinian politics after the Gaza pullout.

Palestinians throughout the West Bank voted in municipal elections Thursday in what some observers view as the barometer of Palestinian politics after Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

In Beituna, taxis draped in green-and-white Hamas flags and the banner of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) clogged the intersection next to a polling center crowded with voters.

With these local elections as a gauge, many are closely monitoring the popularity of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has 400 candidates vying for 1,018 local council seats. Both Israeli and Palestinian officials are concerned that Hamas, which says it will continue to attack Israelis, stands to gain ground in the aftermath of the Gaza pullout because it claimed credit for forcing Israel to withdraw.

Saadeh Shalabi, a candidate from the Hamas-affiliated Reform and Change Party, says that the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) needs to share power with other parties - particularly Hamas.

Thursday's vote, for which official results will be announced Sunday, is viewed by many as a prelude to January's Palestinian Legislative Council elections.

Israel's position is that Hamas should not be allowed to participate in the polls because it remains, by US State Department standards, a terrorist group. But the PA's viewpoint has been that the best way to conquer Hamas is to coopt it. As such, it holds that Hamas will indeed participate in the parliamentary vote.

At stake is the future of Hamas and whether it is capable of forswearing militancy in order to participate in a nascent democracy.

"There is a fundamental contradiction between building a democratic process and being armed and sworn to killing Israelis," says Mark Regev, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman. "How can the Palestinians talk about building institutions and laying the foundations for the future political state if they are still engaging in terrorist activities?"

Mr. Regev says that the Oslo Accords, reached between Israeli and Palestinian leaders during the 1990s, specifically state that organizations that reject peace should not be allowed to run in elections.

A prominent Palestinian pollster, however, says that a high turnout for Hamas in municipal elections, like those held Thursday, does not necessarily translate into support on a national Palestinian level. Exit polls after municipal elections held last January showed the No. 1 issue Palestinians had on their minds was corruption. As the antidote, they took votes away from the PA and gave them to Hamas.

But at the presidential level, exit polls showed that the foremost issue was not corruption, but the capacity of the candidate to assert his authority, maintain law and order, and reach future agreements with Israel, says Khalil Shikaki, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. "In today's elections, I think it will be a continuation of the corruption issue, combined with a small town phenomenon of people voting along family lines," says Dr. Shikaki.

Shikaki's polling organization, based in Ramallah, found in its most recent survey, released Wednesday, that Hamas's campaign to claim credit for Israel's withdrawal has met with relative success. Some 40 percent of the Palestinians give Hamas most credit for evacuating the Gaza Strip, compared to 32 percent to Fatah, the wing of the PLO headed by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. But Fatah, the poll found, is benefiting from the increased optimism that has flourished after the Israeli withdrawal.

If national elections were held today, the survey found, 47 percent would vote for Fatah while only 30 percent would vote for Hamas. That poll shows a 3 percent drop in support for Hamas when compared with figures from three months ago.

"More people than ever believe that violence has been very useful for Palestinians to achieve their national rights ... but it drove the public to draw all of the opposite conclusions," Shikaki says. "People want a focus to be on issues of rebuilding and reconstruction, and now there is less support for violence."

But the current environment is beginning to look like a replay of the violence that marked many periods during the intifada, which exploded five years ago after a breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Following a series of Kassem rocket attacks on southern Israel over the weekend, Israel launched raids in Gaza. It also arrested more than 200 suspected militants and activists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, which some Palestinians say was an attempt to suppress support for those groups at polls.

Mr. Shalabi, the Hamas candidate, says the Israeli arrests are aimed at locking Hamas out of the power-sharing. "The people understand the message very clearly. There is a clear war against the Islamic parties and the right to build and construct civil service institutions."

And yet, other voters were critical of this week's violence, saying that Palestinian attacks on Israeli cities were a mistake liable to destabilize newly liberated Gaza.

"Launching the Kassams is a mistake, for sure," says Jameel Saafi. "We have to maintain the state of calm in order to acquire our rights. How can Hamas think it can compete with Israel's power and force? People are fed up, that's for sure. People are not happy with the consequences of such attacks."

Also Thursday, three militants were killed during a raid in the city of Jenin. The head of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades there, a militant offshoot of the PLO, said that the raids marked the end of a truce with Israel the group had respected for the past six months.

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