Tuesday, 24 January 2006


Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Ramallah, West Bank -- Can a sunflower replace a Kalashnikov assault rifle? Can the stern face of a holy martyr brandishing a gun be replaced by the yearning gaze of a young girl with flowers in her hair?

Wednesday's election for a Palestinian parliament could mark a dramatic new direction for the Palestinian people, and nowhere is that possibility more evident than on the walls of the West Bank and Gaza.

Gone, for the most part, are the faces of the dead, a virtual graveyard of photographic tombstones, featured in the ubiquitous posters dedicated to the shahid -- Palestinian "martyrs" killed in the 5-year intifada against Israel.

Equally absent are the images of masked, gun- and bomb-toting fighters promising resistance and victory. Even, the word "intifada," the word for the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, has virtually disappeared. All of these have been replaced by flowers, cartoons, bright colors and slogans promising to build the future and bring hope to the children.

Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, labeled by Israel, the United States and Western Europe as a terrorist organization, has jettisoned its own name for election purposes, campaigning instead under the banner of the Change and Reformation Party.

The group's makeover, including the name change, has taken place largely under the tutelage of Nashat Aqtash, a media studies lecturer at Bir Zeit University, who also has advised Hamas candidates to tone down their anti-Israel rhetoric.

The party's campaign manifesto left out the call for the destruction of the state of Israel -- a central component of the organization's charter -- and Hamas candidates said they would continue with the 9-month old hudna, a military truce with the Jewish state.

Coincidentally, perhaps, the Islamic group's senior leader in the Gaza Strip said Monday that Hamas might even be willing to negotiate indirectly with the Jewish state once Wednesday's elections are out of the way.

"Negotiation is not a taboo," Mahmoud Zahar told reporters in Gaza City. "Negotiations are a means. If Israel has anything to offer on the issues of halting attacks, withdrawal, releasing prisoners ... then 1,000 means can be found."

Israeli officials have dismissed such changes as cosmetic campaign ploys and point to earlier statements by Hamas leaders that the party's extremist goals have not changed.

Indeed, later on Monday night, before crowds of thousands of core supporters, Zahar and other Hamas candidates said they would never give up their insistence on the destruction of Israel and the right to armed struggle.

"We are entering the legislative council to make it a project of resistance," he told a cheering crowd Monday night in the Zeitoun neighborhood, according to press accounts.

Referring to the ruling Fatah party, which controls the Palestinian Authority, Zahar added, "Do you want to abandon the program of sacrifice and jihad for the program of fancy cars and big salaries?"

Still, according to opinion polls, Hamas is expected to do very well in Wednesday's vote, not so much because of its record of suicide bombings and other violent activities against Israel but due to its emphasis on social programs, which have struck a chord with Palestinians fed up with what they regard as the ruling Fatah party's incompetence and graft.

Polls say Palestinian voters have expressed more interest in cleaning up corruption and improving education than in security issues.

About 1.3 million registered Palestinian voters in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are eligible to cast ballots in the second parliamentary election in 10 years. More than 700 candidates are vying for 132 seats in parliament.

While it is not clear how genuine or deep are the changes in attitudes and policies, it is clear from both Hamas and the Fatah party campaigns that they know what image they need to project to win voter support.

"They are using images of children instead of weapons," said Steve Sabella, an award-winning Palestinian photographer and artist from East Jerusalem, who was commissioned by one party, which he would not name, to photograph a series of images of ordinary people for use in its campaign.

Mahmoud Abuhashhash, director of the culture and science program at the A.M. Qattan Foundation for the arts in Ramallah, believes the campaign, at least as reflected in the wall posters, marks a sea change in Palestinian politics.

"This is really phenomenal," he said. "The images of weapons are totally absent ... . The word muqawme -- resistance -- is mentioned here and there, but in a general way."

Abuhashhash traces the change to the election of Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority to succeed Yasser Arafat in 2005 and to the depiction of a Palestinian leader, for the first time on wall posters, without a gun, military uniform or resistance slogan.

Baha Boukhari, the veteran Fatah political cartoonist who designed that poster, said it was designed, in part, to express Palestinians aspirations that he says Abbas represents.

"We do not believe that God created us just to struggle, just to fight. We want to lead a normal life," Boukhari said.

While all the parties have replaced the familiar images of guns and resistance with portraits of the candidates running for parliament, Fatah has gone one step further with a series of posters conveying broader political messages.

In addition to photos of the late Yasser Arafat in his familiar Arab headdress, and of Marwan Barghouti, a highly popular Palestinian militant currently serving five life terms in an Israeli prison, its posters feature a new Fatah logo -- a yellow sunflower -- and a series of iconic symbols set against a fresh blue sky. One of them, a picture of a young girl, is meant to symbolize the new Palestinian generation.

Mounir Salameh, director of the Fatah campaign in the West Bank, said the sunflower logo was developed from the party's original color scheme, which was yellow.

"Like the sunflower, which always faces the light of the sun, the Palestinian people are looking for a place full of light under the sun on this Earth," Salameh said.

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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