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Hamas makes inroads; peace route gets rockier

The radical group's success raises myriad questions about Palestinians' goals, Israel and Mideast politics and peace.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published January 26, 2006


[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
A conservative Islamic woman votes in Jabalya, a refugee camp in Gaza that is considered a strong area of Hamas support. With a clear alternative to Fatah for the first time, the election drew a heavy turnout of more than 75 percent.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Young and old, moderate and militant, Palestinians voted Wednesday in their first parliamentary election in a decade.

And many had a one-word answer when asked if the balloting would lead to peace and a better life: inshallah, or "God willing."

Although final results are not expected until today, a heavy turnout of more than 75 percent suggested that the radical group Hamas will win enough seats in the 132-member Palestinian parliament to throw Mideast politics into a turmoil.

Israel must now decide how to deal with a Palestinian government that includes an organization committed to destroying the Jewish state. And Palestinians must decide if their goal of independence is best achieved by negotiating with Israel - as moderate Palestinian leaders favor - or continued armed "resistance," which Hamas advocates.

Compounding the uncertainty: Hamas itself seems unclear about its course.

"I see many signs (Hamas is changing) but it is still confused and hasn't made up its mind," said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian minister of information and member of the ruling Fatah Party. "Some of its leaders talk about negotiating, some talk about humanitarian assistance." Shaath predicted Hamas will eventually accept the existence of Israel - as Fatah has done - but "they have to work with their rank and file."

Though Palestinians voted for president in 1996 and again last year, Wednesday was the first time they ever had a clear alternative to Fatah, founded by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Fatah is a nonreligious party while Hamas is an Islamist movement known among Arabs for its charitable work.

Running as the party of "Change and Reform," Hamas candidates accused the Fatah-controlled government of corruption and incompetence. That slogan resonated with many voters, especially here in the crowded Gaza Strip, where three-fourths of the 1.3-million residents live in poverty.

"We are living a long time with (Fatah) and it has accomplished nothing," said Arees Foad, a university student. "All the money that came from donor countries, we don't know where it goes. As you see, there are a lot of unemployed people and jobs only for people who belong to Fatah."

But others worry that Hamas is too militant to ever be a positive force for change.

"Fatah is better for peace and political stability," said Mazen Gebery, an employee of the Palestinian ministry of economics.

The polls opened at 7 a.m. in cool, cloudy weather, and voting was so brisk in places that almost all of the 1,800 people registered in one Gaza precinct had cast ballots by noon. Palestinian authorities said 77.7 percent of the 1.3-million eligible voters turned out.

Exit polls indicated Hamas finished a strong second to Fatah, claiming between 35 and 39.5 percent of the vote. Still unclear is whether Hamas did well enough to force a coalition government and thereby win coveted Cabinet seats.

The atmosphere was festive, with boys as young as 4 gleefully scooping up discarded campaign fliers and passing them out again. Adult supporters of various parties waved colorful flags - green for Hamas, yellow for Fatah and red for the Popular Front. Many female Hamas members wore green baseball caps over their head scarves.

Despite fears of violence, the only tense moments came from photographers shoving each other as they jockeyed for camera position. A media mob scene ensued at one school as Shaath, the Fatah official, showed up in a gleaming, late-model black Mercedes. Underscoring the difference between parties - at least image-wise - he was followed by Hamas' leader Mahmoud al-Zahar, who arrived in an old white Mitsubishi.

In an impromptu news conference, he insisted Hamas isn't going "soft" on Israel, as some have suggested.

"Hamas will not turn into a political party," said al-Zahar, a pediatrician whose son was killed in an Israeli missile attack. "Hamas plays in all fields. It plays in the field of resistance."

Before the election, however, he hinted Hamas would be open to indirect talks with Israel on further Israeli withdrawals from lands Palestinians want for a future state. Israel pulled out of Gaza last summer, ending a 38-year occupation , but more than 200,000 Jewish settlers still live in the West Bank.

The strong showing by Hamas has transformed not just Palestinian but also Israeli politics.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered an incapacitating stroke just as a new party he founded, Kadima, was headed for victory in Israel's March 28 election. Acting Israeli leader Ehud Olmert is trying to maintain Kadima's centrist course - which includes pursuing peace with the Palestinians - but faces a tough electoral challenge from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the hard-line Likud party.

An Israeli expert on Hamas says the Jewish state is in a dilemma.

"Today, we suffer from the worst of all worlds," said Raphael Israeli, a professor at Hebrew University. "Terrorism continues, though not necessarily by Hamas, but we are restrained in our response because everyone wishes to preserve impotent (Palestinian President) Abu Mazen, and reining in Israel is part of that."

Mazen, also known as Mahmoud Abbas, is unpopular with many Palestinians, but is seen by the United States and Europe as Israel's best "partner for peace." He too faces a dilemma: To shore up his sagging support, he needs to welcome Hamas into the political fold. Doing so, though, risks alienating the Americans and Europeans, who have threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority unless Hamas disarms - a condition it has refused.

Hamas' popularity could be relatively short-lived, however, predicts Israeli political scientist Mordechai Kedar:

"With time, it will - no doubt - become as corrupt as the PA and thus lose its main card against Fatah."

Still, many Palestinians think Hamas can be a valuable watchdog.

"We need an opposition party in the government," Hamed Baker, a 50-year-old fisherman, said after casting his ballot. "Right now, nobody looks out for us."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 26, 2006, 01:03:03]


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