Militants emerge as power in politics
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE Thursday, January 26, 2006
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Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Ramallah, West Bank - In a stunning success, the militant Hamas group gained enough seats in Wednesday's Palestinian parliamentary election to challenge the dominance of the ruling Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas was fighting its first national campaign against the well-oiled, well-financed election machine of Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian politics for half a century. Based on exit polls, Fatah seemed certain to remain the largest party in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council but, for the first time in its 10-year existence, to lose its absolute majority.
"Fatah won the vote, but Hamas won the election," said Khaled Abu Toameh, Palestinian affairs analyst for the Jerusalem Post.
Its strong showing opens the possibility of Hamas -- which has been responsible for spearheading a wave of suicide bomb attacks against Israel -- entering the Palestinian government. Observers and voters alike interpret the vote as a protest against Fatah after a decade of inept, corrupt rule that many Palestinians feel has brought them no nearer to peace and independence.
"I am voting for Hamas because they are honest and clean and good for the Palestinian people," said Bilal Jamil, 32, who was doing a brisk trade selling pastries in Ramallah's main Manara Square.
Seventy-five-year-old Issa Hassan Ibrahim cast his vote at the Friends School nearby. "I am voting for Hamas because they are the best people for the Palestinians. The others have failed us," he said.
Abbas now faces the tricky question of appointing a new government. He is not obliged to select ministers on the basis of their parliamentary strength, and Fatah leaders are divided on the question of whether to invite Hamas into the government. Hamas leaders are equally divided over whether they would accept.
"Even if Hamas does not become part of the new coalition, its strong presence in the Legislative Council will enable it to play a major role in future decision-making," Abu Toameh said. "Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah will no longer be able to ignore the power of Hamas, which has now become a legitimate force." Final results are expected today after votes are tallied from the huge turnout, measured by the Palestinian Central Elections Commission at 77.69 percent of voters.
An exit poll by leading Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki projected 58 seats for Fatah in the council and 53 for the Change and Reform Party, as the Hamas party is called. A Bir Zeit University exit poll projected 63 seats for Fatah and 58 for Hamas. The remaining seats will be held by a variety of minor parties. Analysts warned that the exit polls would be unreliable because Palestinians were using a new electoral system, split between national party lists and local representatives.
On Wednesday, there was a carnival atmosphere in the West Bank and Gaza. Despite growing tension in recent weeks and a number of shootings, the ballot went off without a hitch and without any serious incidents.
Streets were festooned with posters and flags. Cars drove by covered in banners, blaring songs in support of the different candidates. Youngsters milled around entrances to the heavily guarded polling stations, handing out election literature with good-natured rivalry.
Fatah and Hamas both hired fleets of minibuses to ferry voters to the polling booths in an effort to boost their numbers.
In Ramallah, the OneVoice, a Palestinian-Jewish peace organization, deployed three brightly dressed camels through the streets to encourage voters to exercise their democratic rights.
The ascendance of Hamas is worrying many secular and Christian Palestinians. Christine Shaheen, a Christian teenager from Ramallah, was canvassing energetically for Fatah outside a local polling station.
"Their policy is built on the religion, and there are a lot of things they are going to use against us. They will make the country all based on religion. We won't be able to wear clothes like this in the streets, we won't be able to walk with men. I am so worried," she said.
Palestinian Planning Minister Ghassan Khatib said the peaceful balloting was an impressive celebration of the power of democracy, even while some Palestinian areas remain under continued Israeli occupation.
"We are very proud of our democracy and we are very proud of the high level of awareness and democracy among our people. This is not new. The Palestinian people have always been eager for democracy and elections whenever we have been allowed to do that," said Khatib.
But he said he shares concerns about Hamas becoming dominant in Palestinian society. "As an individual who believes in the two-state solution and as a secular Palestinian, I have concerns in this regard and I hope the secular groups will maintain a majority -- but this is democracy," he said.
The radical Islamist group has come a long way since it entered politics for the first time last year, sweeping to victory in a series of municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza. It had already won the gratitude of many Palestinians for its welfare programs, preschools and health clinics in areas neglected by the Palestinian Authority.
"Hamas is now closer than ever to fulfilling its goal of duplicating the Hezbollah model in Lebanon, where it would maintain its armed wing while having elected representatives in parliament," said Abu Toameh, the Palestinian journalist.
Hamas' success, the culmination of a sophisticated political campaign, could have repercussions throughout the Middle East for decades to come. Israel, the United States and Europe all consider Hamas a terrorist organization and refuse to deal with it. Israeli relations with the Palestinians are on hold until Israeli voters go to the polls on March 28 to choose a successor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who remains in a coma after a devastating stroke three weeks ago.
"The Europeans and the Americans are telling Hamas to choose between arms and parliament. We say we will go for arms and parliament, and there is no contradiction between the two of them," said Ismail Haniya, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza. Casting their votes on Wednesday, Hamas leaders showed no signs of heeding Abbas' call to lay down their arms and transform themselves into a regular loyal opposition party.
After voting in the Gaza Strip, Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar said the group "will not change a single word in its covenant" calling for the destruction of Israel. He said Hamas would continue its path of "resistance" against Israeli occupation in the West Bank even as it serves in the Palestinian parliament.
"Hamas will not turn into a political party. Hamas plays in all fields. It plays in the field of resistance," said al-Zahar.
Sheikh Mahmoud Abu Ter, head of the Hamas party list in Jerusalem, said voters were attracted by the movement's strong ideological program and its reputation for honesty.
"As a movement, we have an ideological program and a solid soul, and this is supporting us. Our views and our vision of the future (are) so clear to us and we are planning very effectively," said Abu Ter. "In the eyes of public opinion, we are considered clean and untouched by corruption. The people know us and know our transparency and trust us. Our transparency and beliefs -- this is what serves us in the Palestinian streets."