Thursday 26 January 2006


Militants emerge as power in politics

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE Thursday, January 26, 2006
Page A - 1

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."

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

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.