Can Hamas change course?

Some in the group want to focus more on politics and less on attacking Israel.

With his beardless face brightened by a trendy orange shirt and matching tie, Saadeh Shalabi does not look like the typical up-and-coming leader of Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist movement committed to Israel's destruction.

But Mr. Shalabi, an electrical engineer who works at East Jerusalem's Al Quads University, is Hamas' top politician in this middle-class suburb of Ramallah, the West Bank's Palestinian power center. And, even though his party won less than half of the available seats here in last week's municipal polls, he appears set to become mayor, aided by a coalition with independents who also won seats in the election.

"Hamas did very well," says Mr. Shalabi, in a meeting at the local Hamas campaign office. According to official results announced Sunday, Hamas won five of the 13 available seats here. "It's good that the people will see that the Islamic parties can participate in democracy and can work to develop their societies."

Hamas, he says, recruited him because of his reputation for being honest. And if he was going to go into politics, he wanted to work only with "qualified professional people," he says. "I found those qualities in Hamas."

The election was one in a series this year enabling Palestinians to choose local officials for the first time in 28 years. Fatah, the political party affiliated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, won six seats, and the other two seats went to independents.

The results in Beitunia are remarkable in several ways. Even though Fatah, led by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, won the largest number of seats in about half of the 104 municipal councils that were being chosen last week, in many places, the wins were not enough for Fatah to claim leadership. That resembles the situation next door, in Israel's multiparty system, in which neither of the two main parties has won a majority in recent years, and must go into negotiations with small parties who suddenly hold the power to make or break a coalition.

What's more, Shalabi represents what could be the face of Hamas's future. At least in some camps, there's an attempt to reshape Hamas, which won 13 municipalities in the vote, as a Muslim political party and less of a guerrilla group. But the different faces of Hamas - ranging from technocrats like Shalabi to a military wing that continues to attack Israelis - may make Hamas as political party a hard sell to the rest of the world.

Election results were announced the same day Hamas gunmen carrying assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stormed a police station in Gaza City. The ensuing street battle, which resulted in the death of at least three people including a deputy police chief, represents growing tension between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas militants and some of the worst infighting between Palestinian factions in a decade. Many PA leaders now worry that confrontations with Hamas's militants, continuing to flex their muscle after Israel's historic withdrawal from Gaza, will only continue.

Shalabi says he has no contact with the military wing of Hamas. Asked about its activities, such as the possibility of future suicide bombings, he says "God willing," there won't be.

"We're not eager to have bloodshed," he says. "And if the political atmosphere goes in the right direction, I think there won't be. But don't think that a nation under occupation will always go in the right direction."

He says that frustration with corruption has been wearing down support for Fatah, while Hamas is seen as a party full of people who, because they are religious, are less given to graft. That said, the local wing of the party doesn't have a fundamentalist agenda, but expects to stick to issues that affect the everyday lives of people here such as building a sewage system. His other priority, he says, is improving education.

The organization's seesawing between democracy and violence resemble the identity crisis that other Islamic militant organizations have undergone. From Hizbullah in Lebanon to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, several groups with militant backgrounds have, in recent years, managed to steer themselves from combat to campaigns.

Here, as in other countries, the domestic image of Hamas is not nearly so tainted as its international one. Recognizing that, one of the winning independent candidates in the election here, Shaker Othman, says he is concerned that if Hamas is seen to be "running" Beitunia, it will have a hard time getting foreign donors to support development projects here.

Still, says Mr. Othman, a real estate developer who was once active in Fatah, he found the local Hamas leaders to be straight shooters, so to speak, and that he now prefers to deal with them over Fatah. "If Hamas does anything, they do it right," he says. "I chose work with them because they are more honest." Othman, who isn't a particularly ideological person, says that Hamas will eventually deal peaceably with Israel - and Israel with Hamas - "because Hamas is simply a fact of life here."

Local Fatah leader Arafat Khalaf, also known as Abu Ali admits they had hoped to get far more seats on the council here, which, as an area so close to Ramallah, is not considered to be "Hamas territory."

"Hamas has used the Islamic religion to lobby voters. They visit them at home and lecture them in the mosques," he says. Most people in Fatah are honest, he says, but a few people with poor reputations are making Hamas a powerful challenger. "For sure, Fatah is paying a heavy price for some individual Fatah members," he says. "There are a few who are corrupt, but you can count them on the fingers of one hand."

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