Hamas gains grassroots edge

Hamas made significant gains against the ruling Fatah party in Thursday's municipal elections.

Huddling near a gas heater in the mayor's office of this small town near Bethlehem, Fatah campaign manager Atef Rabaya is still reeling.

"I'm trying to wake up from this shock," he says. "The Imams in the mosques must have persuaded people to sympathize with the Islamists."

The shock that Mr. Rabaya was dealt was the stunning victory by Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, in his town of Obadeiah, in Thursday's municipal elections.

The elections, the first phase of polling that is to eventually include all West Bank and Gaza Strip municipalities, saw Hamas score victories against the ruling Fatah movement, which nevertheless carried a majority of the councils.

When Hamas candidates assume office shortly, it will be the biggest hold on power for a movement that until now has functioned largely as an opposition - and is perhaps best known for its suicide bombings against Israeli targets.

"This is the first time Hamas will take responsibility in the society," says Hafez Barghouthi, editor of the Palestinian Authority (PA) affiliated al-Hayat al-Jadida newspaper. "It is the first time it will have to go beyond criticism of the PA, to work in the field like a party responsible for coordinating daily life, and as a party with a duty to society."

The elections marked the first local balloting since 1976, when PLO candidates swept most towns to the dismay of Israeli military authorities. From the start of self-rule in 1994 until now, PA appointees ran the municipalities.

Interpreting the results

Mr. Barghouthi believes the municipal elections should not be interpreted as a vote on whether people favor Hamas's stress on violence or Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Mahmoud Abbas's stress on diplomacy as the means to end Israeli occupation.

"This is not about the Oslo agreement or the road map, it is about who offers services for the people" he says.

But in the view of Hisham Ahmed, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University, the results of the local elections can be viewed as an expression of dissatisfaction with Mr. Abbas, the Fatah leader favored to win theJan. 9 election that will choose a successor for the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"While he may be popular in the West, he is not popular among many Palestinians because of his political views, his lack of charisma, and his statements," Mr. Ahmed says. Abbas has called for an end to the armed intifada.

Because the PA released the winners by name and not political party, and because many candidates ran as independents, it was difficult to determine Sunday precisely how many of the 26 local councils that were elected were won by Hamas.

Fatah leaders said they had won sixteen councils, while Hamas leaders claimed to have won twelve.

Ahmed estimates that Hamas won nine councils, with Fatah gaining 13 or 14, and the remainder as yet unclear. He described the results as "absolutely a very strong showing" for Hamas, since, he says, the contested localities had been considered Fatah strongholds.

"No longer can one group declare it has the exclusive power in Palestinian society," Ahmed says.

The successes in the municipal elections, analysts say, will likely encourage Hamas to take a further step, participating in May elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. And the high turnout - 81 percent, according to PA officials - and the absence of major disruptions are seen as positive signs in advance of the January presidential elections.

Hamas is boycotting those elections, saying they emanate from the 1993 Oslo agreements with Israel, which it rejects.

Woman power

In Obadeiah, there was another surprise in store, even for Hamas itself: Three women were among the seven candidates on its affiliated Reform Bloc list to win seats on the eleven-member local council.

One of them, Huda al-Asa, says that as a town councilor, the competition between Hamas and Fatah for the loyalties of Palestinians will not concern her.

"Hamas and Fatah should work together now. I have run to serve my town, not to deal with politics. My priority would be to serve the women and children in general," says the diminutive and soft-spoken Ms. Asa, wearing a navy blue hijab. "Our platform calls for building a public library and a medical compound."

One of the biggest problems facing Obadeiah - soaring unemployment after Israel stopped allowing workers from the town into its territory - is beyond the capability of the municipality to solve, she admits. Israel says the strictures are necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.

Asa, a nurse who is a mother of five, says it was her experience running a charitable association, the Abadiya Women's Society, along with the two other women candidates, that contributed to her appeal. "I used to volunteer during sieges and closures, helping women deliver babies and helping injured people," she says.

According to a quota system, women are guaranteed two seats on each council. But in Obadeiah, the three women were elected without the quota. "We insisted that we could beat the men face to face," says Asa.

Rabaya, the Fatah campaign manager, offers another explanation for Hamas's success in Obadeiah. He says Hamas was more astute in translating clan loyalties - a major factor in local Palestinian politics - into votes for its candidates. Many Fatah supporters voted for Hamas candidates out of clan solidarity, he says.

But Hassan Youssef, the senior Hamas political figure in the West Bank, says Hamas's experience in running trade unions and professional associations and its reputation as being clean of corruption came to play in the polling. "People have seen us working in the administrative level and trust us with their daily lives," he says.

Bethlehem Governor Zuhair Manasra, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, says the gains by Hamas in the municipal elections may set the stage for further advances in the legislative elections. "It has a psychological effect on people," he says. "People by nature like to associate themselves with the successful."

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