Sunday 19 February 2006

Secret democracy elevated Hamas

Underground campaign unified voters

Ramallah, West Bank -- Even though more Palestinians voted against Hamas than for its candidates in the Jan. 25 election, the militant Islamist group used the skills it had honed in organizing attacks on Israel to outwit the ruling Fatah party in capturing a comfortable majority of seats in the new parliament that was set to open Saturday.

Still basking from their stunning victory, Hamas leaders recently described how they won -- and how close they came to losing. In a series of interviews, senior Hamas election strategists told The Chronicle that their success was greatly helped by the failure of Fatah to unify its own ranks.

"We used scientific methods based on our study of the polls. We stayed united. We had a program which won the confidence of the voters. The Fatah candidates were split and they were putting up too many people in each district. It split their vote," said Farhat Assad, the West Bank campaign manager for Hamas.

Small secret cells of Hamas members gathered in the spring of 2005 to undertake their campaign, Assad and others said. Highly disciplined couriers moved through the underground, avoiding capture by Israeli forces and keeping their communication routes free of collaborators and possible discovery. Running the risk of arrest or assassination by Israeli security forces, these couriers brought back the decisions of local cells to the Shura Council, the secretive ruling body of Hamas, for final approval.

If the organizing techniques were familiar, the goal was not. Hamas was engaged in underground democracy -- party primaries to choose candidates for the Palestinian parliamentary election.

Hamas leaders said choosing the right candidates was one key to their success. But being a secret organization -- many of whose members were in hiding because of their anti-Israel activities -- Hamas politicians couldn't run the risk of meeting publicly to choose their candidates. Bajjes Nachleh, the Hamas campaign director for the West Bank, was arrested last year as he tried to organize the primaries.

So Hamas developed an extraordinary system of secret democracy, based on small cells of five or six people in each village who for security reasons could not be in contact with each other. They nominated a list from which the Shura Council and the 13-member Hamas High Election Committee -- another secret body -- chose the actual candidates.

In all districts except three, they won.

"In Ramallah city, we have dozens of such groups who are active workers, and we did the primaries in these groups. These groups do not know each other. Each group is four or five people and they keep separate for security reasons," said Dr. Mahmoud Ramahi, a newly elected Hamas councilman.

"The difference is in the people that Hamas selected," said Ramahi, an Italian-trained anesthesiologist. "Unlike the past, they are not all directors of mosques or involved mainly in religious studies. Many of us are professionals and intellectuals."

Half of the Hamas members taking part in the primaries -- about 6,000 people -- were in Israeli jails.

"Ironically, the process there was easier," said Ramahi. "There are 18 people in each prison cell. They simply voted among themselves and transmitted the results to the outside leaders through visitors or when one of them was released."

The leaders also decided to campaign as Change and Reform, a party banner first used for municipal elections in Gaza last year. The name combines a political message with a reference to two passages from the Quran that encourage personal development in order to deepen faith.

Assad, who spent three years in prison until his release last October, took over as West Bank campaign manager and suggested using public-opinion polls to put together a party platform.

"The polls all said the people's first concern was about corruption, and then the security situation," said Assad. "And they showed that 25 percent of the people cared about religion."

He commissioned further internal polling that confirmed his belief that Palestinians who traditionally did not support Hamas would respond to a message emphasizing an end to corruption, a clean and honest government and a strong stand against the Israeli occupation.

The party program was toned down -- deleting references to Hamas' charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel and the imposition of Islamic Shariah law. Finally, a batch of outside experts was called in to give advice on how to run the campaign. With the help of Yazid Khadr, a Hamas media expert, and the party leadership, the candidates decided how to answer journalists' questions. New briefings were sent out almost daily to keep candidates up to date.

Nashat Aqtash, a liberal lecturer in media studies at Birzeit University in the West Bank, was brought in to book advertising space and open a "media school" to groom candidates for interviews.

The final touch came when Assad and his colleagues gathered their activists and trained them in the dual national and district voting procedure that Fatah had adopted with the aim of ensuring they would win. "The day before the election, we held a meeting of the village committees and instructed them to tell people to vote for the national list and then for the right number of Change and Reform candidates in their district," he said.

Ramahi, the physician, said Fatah's sudden expansion weakened its character and undermined internal discipline.

"The people who organize our movement are a small number. Fatah wants to bring everyone to be one of their organization. We are not like that. We prefer to have only five or six people in each of the villages -- but if they are good people, they can change all of the village. The whole village becomes our supporters without becoming members of Hamas," he said.

Ramahi said secrecy and security remained important, because all Hamas members could be arrested by Israel at any time. The head of the Change and Reform list in Ramallah, Sheikh Hasan Yousef, is currently in an Israeli prison -- as is Marwan Barghouti, head of the Fatah list.

"There is a committee at the top, the leaders, but I am not part of this committee," Ramahi said. "The committee selected me to run. In these elections, Hamas did not bring their leaders and put them in the elections, because then Israel could come and arrest them all. ... Hamas has its leadership outside this parliament and inside its representatives."

One leader who stepped into the limelight is Sheikh Mohammed Abu Ter, 55, from the village of Umm Tuba on the southern edge of Jerusalem. Recognizable by his striking henna-red beard, the former Fatah fighter turned Hamas military chief, spent more than 25 years in Israeli jails for weapons offenses and other crimes, including a plot to poison Jerusalem's drinking water. He was released last year and took the second spot on the Hamas national list, putting him in line for a Cabinet position in the new Hamas-led government.

Abu Ter told The Chronicle his contribution to Hamas' success was suggesting candidates knock on every door.

"They were like the cells of a beehive in each city, " he said. "And they worked so hard because, unlike Fatah, they weren't being paid. Our people weren't working for money; they were working because they believed in the cause, and it showed.

"We had to work silently, like the water that works in a tree. You can't see it, but you see the results."

Matthew Kalman reports from the Mideast for the Chronicle Foreign Service. Contact us at

This article appeared on page E - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle

How Hamas swept in district elections, creating the appearance of a landslide


Sunday, February 19, 2006
Page E - 5

Matthew Kalman

A close look at the final results of last month's Palestinian election shows that the apparent landslide that gave Hamas 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council and only 45 to the once-dominant Fatah movement was, in the words of one analyst, "an optical illusion."

Under a new system introduced by the Fatah-dominated council last year, the election was divided into two parts. Sixty-six seats were elected according to national lists of candidates, with seats apportioned according to the percentage of votes received by each party. The remaining 66 were allocated among 16 different districts, where voters cast a separate ballot for individuals to represent each district.

In the vote for the national lists, Hamas received 44.45 percent of the vote while Fatah scored 41.43 percent. This gave Hamas 29 seats to Fatah's 28, with nine seats for smaller parties. If the entire election been conducted on this model, Fatah could have stayed in power by cobbling together a coalition with two or three of the small parties.

But in the district elections, Hamas swept the board even though it attracted only a minority of votes. By running only one candidate, while multiple Fatah candidates canceled each other out, Hamas won 45 district seats to Fatah's 17, with four independents. Yet Hamas candidates received only 36.45 percent of total votes while Fatah and other non-Hamas candidates won 63.54 percent.

"In reality, a clear majority of Palestinians voted against the Hamas," said Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. "What happened is that Hamas presented a unified list in each district, while Fatah and others had a multiplicity of candidates, which caused great divisions."