Hamas gains Palestinian political clout

The militant group won 28 municipal elections in the territories Thursday.

During the past 4-1/2 years, the militant group Hamas has used suicide bombings and rocket launchings to take the lead among Palestinian factions in attacks on Israeli civilian and military targets.

But it wasn't primarily its persistent campaign against the Israeli occupation that won over voters in municipal elections Thursday, which has helped give Hamas enough support to become a potent force in Palestinian electoral politics.

Rather, Hamas is capitalizing on the vulnerabilities in Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the dominant force in Palestinian politics for four decades.

In the view of Hamas and Fatah activists as well as many voters, Fatah lost critical support because of the lack of improvement in daily living conditions for Palestinians, internal divisions, corruption, and the mistakes made in playing the politics of extended families.

All of these are factors that could come back to haunt Fatah in the legislative elections scheduled for July.

Fatah did not collapse in the poll, the third round of local elections that took place in 84 municipalities.

Fatah won in more than 50 municipalities, compared with 28 for Hamas. The remainder went to smaller groups, according to preliminary results. But Hamas took the bigger cities: Qalqilya in the northern West Bank, and Beit Lahiya, Bureij, and apparently Rafah in the Gaza Strip, though the latter outcome was being disputed by Fatah.

"We can definitely see the municipal elections as an accomplishment for Hamas," says Bir Zeit University political scientist Hisham Ahmed. "It opens the door for their participation in the political process in a full-fledged manner at the domestic political level.... The impact of this is that there will be very fierce competition in the legislative elections."

Those elections scheduled for July promise to be a key test for Mr. Abbas, Yasser Arafat's successor, who has orchestrated a cease-fire but has been unable to bring much improvement in the lives of Palestinians.

Following the election, Fatah leaders are making little effort to conceal their disappointment. "This should alert us to perform better in the legislative elections. We will have to work hard," says Fatah legislator Mohammed Hourani. Now, there are calls within Fatah to postpone the legislative elections.

The biggest jolt to Fatah came in Qalqilya, where Hamas swept all 15 council lists, shutting out Fatah.

One key Fatah mistake was to place at the top of its candidate list the Palestinian Authority-appointed mayor, Maarouf Zahran, at a time when the public was clamoring for change, residents say.

Ahmed Shreim, Fatah's secretary- general in Qalqilya, a town of 45,000 hemmed in by Israel's separation barrier, resigned Sunday. He said national Fatah leaders had failed in advance of the election to resolve feuding between Mr. Zahran and another candidate, Othman Daoud, that disrupted the campaign.

"We have paid a price for the Palestinian Authority's corruption and its not doing its job," adds Mr. Shreim.

He also blamed Israel for not relinquishing control of Qalqilya to the PA, not allowing the many thousands of unemployed in the town to go back to former jobs inside Israel despite the current ceasefire or easing other occupation strictures. "Fatah depends on the goodwill of [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, but he has no goodwill," says Mr. Shreim.

Israel says that in line with its disengagement policy it has no intention of allowing large numbers of Palestinian workers back inside its borders and that curbs on movement must remain in place to prevent attacks. It says it froze the hand- over of West Bank cities because the PA did not disarm fugitives in Jericho and Tulkarem, two cities that were transferred in March. The PA disputes this.

The head of the Hamas list, Wajih Nazal, administrator of the Society for the Handicapped, a Hamas charity, has been in Israeli administrative detention since 2002 and is due to be released next month. "The citizens of Qalqilya said no to Fatah corruption and yes to Islam," he said in an interview from his prison cell.

No. 2 on the list, pharmacist Hashem Masri, said the list's composition proved decisive. "It is a close group of people who can work together as a team and can represent Qalqilya in terms of geographical, familial, and professional distribution."

The new council promises to nullify a tax on fruits and vegetables on the grounds that it isn't in accord with Islam. Hamas also promised during its campaign to forgive - or allow installment payments - on taxes owed to the municipality.

Hamas's success, and its running for the Palestinian Legislative Council, mark milestones for the movement, but do not signify abandonment of armed attacks, analysts say.

"There is a tangible change in Hamas's political program and its attitude to the Palestinian Authority and to participating in elections, but it is still too early to say it is transforming into a political party. It is a liberation movement and as long as the Israeli occupation exists and there is no political horizon to end it, the resistance will exist," says analyst Hani Masri.

Mohammed Najib contributed to this report.

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