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One town doubts Hamas

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2006



QALQILYA, WEST BANK

The warehouse of Qalqilya Mirrors and Glass sits on a bumpy, chalk-colored dirt road.

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When the militant group Hamas beat the ruling Fatah party for control of this Palestinian town of 42,000 in last May's municipal elections, the new councilors promised to pave uneven streets like the one outside Mustafa Juadei's glass business. And while Mr. Juadei awaits the road improvement, he says that potential clients go elsewhere.

Hamas's win in cities like Qalqilya was a harbinger of their surprise Jan. 25 victory in the parliamentary election. But, after experiencing six months of local Hamas rule, Qalqilya was the only district in which Hamas lost to Fatah last month. Now, as Hamas cobbles together the first Palestinian cabinet led by an Islamist party and struggles to secure much-needed aid money, some locals say a Hamas backlash could spread in the Palestinian territories.

"We haven't felt any real change in the city,'' said Mahmoud Hafeth, the Qalqilya Glass warehouse superintendent who complains that the new municipality hasn't prevented higher electricity and water fees.

"It's not only the [lack of] asphalt, it's the wall. It's a municipal wall and it could collapse any time,'' says Juadei. "There are people who had high expectations, but not myself.''

'Reform and change'

Running on a platform promising "reform and change,'' Hamas electoral victories in the parliament and in dozens of municipalities across the West Bank and Gaza reflect anger over public graft, frustration at being encircled by Israel's separation barrier amid a moribund peace process, and infighting among the ruling Fatah party.

Hamas council members in Qalqilya boast of overhauling the city hall bureaucracy and eliminating waste in municipal procurement, while critics charge that promises to build new schools and a new industrial zone have yet to materialize.

To be sure, the challenge of running a government dominated by one party for decades has been formidable.

As they get control over the city's $7.5 million city debt, Hamas councilors say they've discovered a supplier who stole $50,000 from the local government.

At the same time, some municipal employees have resisted changes in their job descriptions. That has slowed down the new municipal bosses in making progress on other more visible improvements.

"Some people did not vote for Hamas because they expected miracles to happen in six months,'' says Yasser Hamad, a Hamas member of the Qalqilya local council. "The expectations were too high and the problems too numerous.''

The aid question

Amid public threats of a cut in Western aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) Qalqilya's municipality last week published a tender for a $100,000 water infrastructure project after getting an aid contribution from a city in France.

And yet, municipal employees believe that 10 times that amount has been frozen from a German contributor for projects to upgrade sewer systems and roads at the entrances to the city.

A European Union announcement Monday may alleviate some initial panic over aid.

The EU has agreed give the Palestinians 120 million euros ($142 million) in emergency aid.

Officials say the aid package comprises ;40 million euros ($48 million) to pay for the PA's energy and other utility bills, 64 million euros ($76 million) for health and education projects and 17.5 million euros ($21 million) to help the authority pay its employees.

From frustration to apathy

"From May last year, there have been no new projects until now,'' said Rina Hanayel, a civil engineer employed by the Qalqilya municipality. "At the beginning [Hamas] said, 'We will do this and we will do that,' but we don't know if it will ever happen in the future.''

Abutting the border of the West Bank and Israel, Qalqilya is virtually encircled by the cement wall and electronic fence barrier erected to block suicide bombers from reaching Israeli cities. Farmers, laborers, and merchants rely on Israeli army-issued permits to reach fields and clients on the other side of the barrier.

And yet, Hamas's control of the local government hasn't hurt cooperation in the region between the Palestinian Authority's ministry for civil affairs and the Israeli army's liaison office.

Some here worry that the new Hamas-led parliament may make moves to hinder this local working relationship with Israel.

Working with Israel

"Stopping coordination would affect all aspects of life,'' said Luay Saadi, a civil affairs ministry official in Qalqilya who meets with Israeli officers twice a day. "Everything is linked to Israel. That would be a disastrous scenario.''

That fact of life hasn't been lost on Moyaed Shreim, a Hamas councilor who says the Islamic militants would be willing to talk to Israeli military officers to facilitate humanitarian needs of the Palestinians.

On the other hand, the Hamas administration seems to have been less flexible on cultural issues. Last summer, the Islamists canceled plans to hold an international folk festival in the city because it featured mixed dancing with men and women.

Hamas said the decision reflected the city's conservative bent, but critics said it cost Qalqilya's economically.

"Restaurants thought there would be more business,'' says Hisham Dweikat, a local representative of the Palestinian culture ministry, "but because of what happened with the festival, that opportunity was lost.''

Back at the glass factory, Juadei explained that although he had supported Hamas in the local election and remains optimistic that they'll finally pave his road, he didn't support the Islamists in the legislative vote.

"They have proven they can develop expertise'' in the municipalities, he says. "But to run the Palestinian Authority you need to deal with national issues and plan across different districts. The challenge is much greater.''

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