Sunday, 22 January 2006

Mideast could take a radical new turn

Yasser Arafat's party may fall to radical Hamas group when Palestinians vote Wednesday

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE Sunday, January 22, 2006
Page A - 1

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Ramallah, West Bank - The Fatah campaign rally in the Anata refugee camp near Ramallah featured large posters of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the party election slogan: "The makers of history and builders of the future."

Former Palestinian Cabinet Secretary Ahmed Abdel Rahman gave a rousing speech, but he was virtually booed off the stage by local residents demanding to know why he hadn't been seen in Anata for years. His reception left local organizers red-faced.

The growing unpopularity of Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian politics for decades, will be the central issue when Palestinians go to the polls Wednesday to elect a parliament for the first time in a decade, and only the second time in their history.

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A Palestinian police officer stands guard at the Fatah ca... David Blumenfeld/Special to The / SFC
A Palestinian police officer stands guard at the Fatah campaign office in Ramallah. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle

Since the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, it has been dominated by Fatah, the armed revolutionary movement founded by Arafat that became the governing party under his leadership. Now Hamas -- the militant Islamic group that has spearheaded the suicide bombing campaign against Israel -- has set its sights on Fatah's stranglehold on power.

Headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah appears to be suffering from a popular backlash amid charges of mismanagement, corruption and incompetence.

Baha Boukhari, a prominent Palestinian political cartoonist, said he and his countrymen are proud of their fledgling democracy, but remain concerned about interference from Israel and changing political patterns at home.

"We in Palestine have become pioneers for this region, if you compare us with all the Arab countries around," said Boukhari. "In our democracy, we are taking greater steps than all these other countries. Even though we are under occupation, we still have more freedom and more democracy and more opportunity to translate what we believe into reality in our everyday life."

But Boukhari said he is concerned about opinion polls showing rising support for Hamas, which did surprisingly well in last year's municipal elections and is participating in national elections for the first time.

"As civilized people, we believe in democracy and we have to respect the result, even if people elect a party which doesn't represent what I believe," said Boukhari, a lifelong Fatah supporter. "If Hamas will win, I believe Palestinians did not struggle all this time to achieve this final result. Hamas is something different. Hamas is not Islam. I am Muslim, the majority of Palestinians are Muslims, but what these people are representing is extremist. We are struggling to live as a normal nation, as any nation in the world, not to become a theocracy."

Hamas leaders say they are a role model not only for the Palestinians, but for the whole region.

"We are the future of this area. Islam is the only resolution of the future of this area," said Mahmoud Ramahe, a Hamas candidate from Ramallah.

Wednesday's elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, or PLC, will be governed by a 2005 law that standardized the voter rolls, enlarged the council from 88 members to 132 and introduced a mixed system of constituencies and proportional representation.

A total of 1,340,673 registered voters are to elect the 132 PLC members -- 66 of them by proportional representation from national lists, and 66 to represent 11 districts in the West Bank and five in the Gaza Strip. Six district seats have been reserved for Christians, and each party must include at least three women among the top 12 candidates on its list for the national vote.

As with the Palestinian presidential election in January 2005, this week's voting will be monitored by dozens of international observers organized by the European Union and the National Democratic Institute -- a nonprofit group that promotes democracy worldwide -- under the leadership of former President Jimmy Carter.

The latest survey published by the Development Studies Program at Birzeit University near Ramallah gives Fatah 35 percent of the vote and Hamas 31.3 percent with 21 percent undecided. Because of the two-part voting system, pollsters said it was almost impossible to determine how these voting patterns would translate into numbers of seats, but Hamas has a chance of winning a majority in parliament.

Ramahe said Hamas would be pragmatic, participating in government and talking to Israeli officials, even though the group does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

"We must deal with the issues affecting the everyday lives of our people," he said. "If that means we must speak to Israeli officials about water, electricity or other such matters, we will do it because we must deal with the reality on the ground. This does not mean that we accept it."

However many seats Hamas takes, Ramahe said, they are a force with which Israel and the Western nations will have to contend. "If the United States and Europe want to deal with the problems of this area, they will have to deal with Hamas."

Israeli leaders say they will not talk to Hamas government ministers, although lower-level officials deal with elected Hamas officials at the municipal level. Both the United States, which classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization, and the European Union have threatened to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas politicians are given a role in government before its militias lay down their arms.

"The view of the U.S. is that there should be no place in the political process for groups and individuals who refuse to denounce terror and violence, who do not recognize Israel's right to exist, and refuse to disarm," Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch said after a recent meeting with Abbas. To the dismay of some Palestinians, Carter echoed those sentiments.

"While it is in the long-term interest of Palestinian democratic development, and likely in the long-term security interests of Israel, that a wide spectrum of groups participate in lawful and peaceful political processes, Hamas' current political participation, while simultaneously advocating violence, undermines a fundamental principle of democratic elections," said a statement issued by Carter's National Democratic Institute.

Even Fatah officials admit that the appeal of Hamas is largely due to antipathy toward the ruling party, especially its aging rulers who have not delivered the peace and prosperity Palestinians once expected.

"Fatah has led the Palestinian Authority for the past 10 years and is the ruling party in Palestine. That will create for the other groups a weapon in their hands to attack Fatah with all the mistakes and problems that have occurred in the Palestinian Authority," said Mounir Salameh, director of the Fatah election campaign in the West Bank.

"But Fatah will present the Palestinian people with the great achievements which we have brought them in the past 10 years -- the jobs we have created, the hospitals, schools, and miles of roads we have paved. We will demonstrate that we are the true saviors of the national program."

At Fatah campaign headquarters in Ramallah, Laila Jammal, a one-time UC Berkeley student from Daly City, was helping set up the office and brief canvassers.

"My family thinks I'm crazy moving back here," said Jammal, who was born in Acre, now part of Israel. "I've faced dangers from the Israelis, but I wouldn't be anywhere else. After touching the dangers, I am even more positive that we have to end our suffering and form an independent state, and I believe that Fatah should continue to lead that struggle."

Voters don't need to support Hamas to beat Fatah -- they just need to stay at home.

In municipal elections last year, Hamas captured Fatah strongholds such as El Bireh and Bethlehem in the West Bank because Fatah supporters simply didn't bother to vote.

The dwindling Christian community in Bethlehem is reeling from anti-Christian comments made by one of the newly elected Hamas City Council members, and a special effort is under way to get out the vote for moderate candidates on Wednesday.

"People are worried, especially after the municipality elections," said Mike Canavati, a prominent Christian businessman in Bethlehem. "Only 30 or 35 percent of the Christians went to vote. That's why Hamas took all these seats. This time we are going house to house, telling the people: 'You must go and vote for the good Muslim, for the non-fundamentalist Muslims.' I think we're going to succeed.

"If we don't vote, then for sure the Hamas will win a lot of seats. It will be terrible. The whole world is against fundamentalist Muslims. It will affect us in all ways. If this day comes, it will be the end of Christianity in this area," Canavati said.

Across town, the offices of the campaign to free Marwan Barghouti were working full out. Barghouti was convicted on five counts of murder by an Israeli court in May 2004 for his part in a string of deadly attacks. Despite his incarceration, he remains the leader of the Fatah "Young Guard," dedicated to democratizing and modernizing the ruling party. He threatened to run atop an independent list until the party leadership caved in and put him at the head of the Fatah candidates.

Barghouti is unlikely to be released in the near future, but his wife Fadwa, who is also running in the election, said a reinvigorated Fatah under her husband's leadership -- even from jail -- would be more appealing to voters.

"Marwan believes we should resist the occupation while trying to negotiate peace with Israel, a policy which has made him very popular among ordinary Palestinians," she said. "They also respect his stance on social issues and the democratization of Fatah."

In addition to the internal disputes, Palestinian leaders accuse Israel of interfering with the movement of candidates and election materials because of security checkpoints scattered throughout the West Bank and on the border of the Gaza Strip.

Israel says it will do all it can to ease the movement of voters on election day, but argues that lifting security restrictions completely will allow terrorists to reach their targets. Its concerns were realized Thursday, when a suicide bomber sent by Islamic Jihad -- which is not running candidates in the election -- blew himself up in Tel Aviv, injuring more than 20 people and killing himself.

All sides agreed that the attack was designed to provoke an Israeli security clampdown, threatening the conduct of the vote.

"The culprits must be punished," Abbas said in response to Thursday's suicide bombing. "They aim to sabotage the elections and the efforts of the Palestinian Authority to impose law and order."

Politics of the Palestinians


Where: West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem

When: Wednesday

What's at stake: Election of Palestinian Legislative Council members, half elected from party lists and half representing 16 local districts.

Electorate: Limited to the areas occupied by Israel in June 1967, including 1.3 million registered voters living in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. To cast ballots, voters must have proof of age, identity, Palestinian citizenship and place of residence. Palestinian ID holders living abroad are also eligible to vote if they have registered and are in Palestinian territories on election day.

Palestinian Legislative Council: The PLC, the legislative arm of the Palestinian Authority, is an elected unicameral body with 132 members who serve 5-year terms. It enacts laws, votes on the prime minister's nomination by the president, and approves Cabinet positions proposed by the prime minister.

State-level districts: The 16 districts are Bethlehem, Deir al-Balah, Gaza City, Hebron, Jenin, Jericho, Jerusalem, Khan Yunis, Nablus, Northern Gaza, Qalqilya, Rafah, Ramallah, Salfit, Tubas and Tulkarem. Six seats in districts with significant Christian populations are reserved for Christian lawmakers.

President: The president of the Palestinian Authority is directly elected by Palestinians in a separate election and is considered the commander in chief of the armed forces. Mahmoud Abbas was elected in January 2005 to succeed Yasser Arafat, the first president, who died in 2004.


Twelve political slates of candidates are registered. The main parties are Fatah, which has dominated the Palestinian government since the Palestinian Authority was established, and Hamas, which is campaigning as the Change and Reformation Party.

Fatah: The dominant political force for many years, the party is struggling to shake off its reputation for corruption and cronyism. Leaders have been trying to patch over a division between veteran party elders and younger, more radical members who contend the political establishment needs shaking up. President Abbas, leader of the old guard, has attempted to improve security and end lawlessness, but Israelis complain he is foot-dragging on their demand that he disarm militias. Marwan Barghouti is a favorite of younger voters despite being imprisoned in Israel on murder charges.

Hamas: Outside the Palestinian territories, Hamas is best known for its violent campaigns against Israel -- unlike Fatah, it refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, and the United States calls it a terrorist organization. In Gaza and the West Bank, the organization has earned a reputation for providing local services, such as preschools and health and welfare services, superior to those of the Palestinian Authority, and its candidates have done well in previous municipal elections.

Other slates and parties: The Third Way slate, headed by former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, includes prominent Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi; Alternative slate, headed by Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Secretary-General Qais Abdel Karim; Independent Palestine slate (National Initiative), headed by Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi; Abu Ali Mustafa slate (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP); the Abu Al-Abbas slate (Palestinian Liberation Front); the Freedom and Social Justice slate; the Popular Struggle Front slate; the Freedom and Independence slate (the Palestinian Arab Front); the Palestinian Justice slate (independent); and Waad (independent).

Sources: Council on Foreign Relations; The Jerusalem Fund; BBC News; Central Elections Commission-Palestine; Chronicle research by Lois Jermyn.

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