Amid turmoil, a Hamas mayor builds and builds

In the West Bank town of Bidya, Ramadan Shatat aims to be model of good government.

Published February 24, 2007

BIDYA, West Bank - There is a sign on Mayor Ramadan Shatat's office door that reads:

Dear Brother. Please do not come to the mayor for minor matters.

Please go to the appropriate department.

People in this Palestinian town routinely ignore the request, popping in to inquire about permits or calling the mayor at 2 a.m. to complain the power is out. He admits it is tiring, but he is determined to prove a point: The radical group Hamas, of which he is a member, knows how to govern.

"In the municipality, it is services, not politics," said Shatat, who keeps a box of Happy brand chocolates on hand for the endless stream of visitors. "We said to the people, 'Don't look at us as Hamas, look at our capacities.' "

And from what they've seen - a new court, a new park, a new university - they appear to be pleased.

"He is the best mayor we ever had," said Rebhi Mari, owner of a furniture store. "I can show you pictures of him cleaning litter from the streets by himself."

It's been a year since Hamas - which refuses to recognize Israel or renounce terrorism - swept parliamentary elections and took control of the Palestinian National Authority. The United States cut off direct aid to the new government, sparking a power struggle between Hamas and the ousted Fatah Party that has led to kidnappings, murders and fears of a civil war.

The two factions recently agreed to form a new "unity" government, but Israel and the United States are unlikely to deal with it unless Hamas softens its stance on Israel. Monday's summit with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did little to revive peace talks because Hamas was not included.

Though the group's 2006 victory stunned much of the world, it came as no surprise to residents of Bidya or other Palestinian cities already under Hamas leadership. In late 2004, Shatat was elected Bidya's governor as voters rejected what they viewed as a corrupt, incompetent Fatah administration.

"I'm not Hamas, but I voted for Hamas because they work for the benefit of the people," Mari said. "Sure, I would vote for Hamas again. There is no alternative."

Bills, not bullets

As Hamas and Fatah gunmen were battling it out one recent morning in the Gaza Strip, 43 miles away in the West Bank Mayor Shatat was preparing for "a great day."

Accompanied by several Islamic judges in their white turbans and black coats, the mayor waited at the edge of town for a VIP. The Palestinian chief justice was coming to dedicate the new court.

The first car to approach, though, had Israeli license plates. The driver - probably a Jewish settler - took one look at the group, did a screeching U-turn and sped off.

Everyone laughed. "I don't think he likes us," one judge said.

No terrorist attacks have been launched from Bidya, which is just 20 miles from Tel Aviv, and Jews used to flock to town to buy inexpensive furniture. But after a new wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence erupted in 2000, Israeli roadblocks cut off Bidya not just from Tel Aviv, but often from Palestinian cities, too.

Thus, one of the mayor's main goals: Make Bidya's 10,000 residents as self-reliant as possible.

Early on, he persuaded the Arab Bank to install the town's first ATM. It is used so much the bank will open a full-service branch in June.

Four months ago, Jerusalem's Open University began offering classes in a makeshift campus on the top floors of City Hall. It already has 350 students.

Bidya also has a new TV station, which recorded the festivities as the chief justice, Tayseer al-Tamimi, was escorted into a flower-bedecked wedding hall by a drum and cymbal band.

"The Palestinian people must be united!" Tamimi thundered to a large audience as the mayor nodded in agreement. "We have to focus our efforts on building our society, not on fighting."

The crowd then proceeded down the street where Tamimi cut the ribbon on the new court, which will serve 40,000 people in 20 villages. Afterward, the mayor got back to business, proudly noting that on this day Bidya was also sending out its first computerized utility bills.

'By our own hands'

Since Shatat was first profiled by the St. Petersburg Times on the eve of the 2006 Palestinian elections, much has changed. Some Hamas mayors in other cities have struggled with soaring poverty and violence between Fatah and Hamas factions.

But the 34-year-old Shatat - who has a master's degree and dresses like a CPA - has kept Bidya calm with his wonkish zeal for efficiency.

The cutoff in aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority "was a wrong decision," he said, "because you are punishing all Palestinians." Bidya completed a new U.S.-funded park because the money was in the pipeline, but had to scrap plans for a cultural center with theater and library.

However, the town has actually increased its budget by $500,000 - to $1.5-million - by selling power to other villages and using creative ways to get Bidyans to pay their utility bills.

People who ignored their bills under the old Fatah-led government got a 30 percent break if they settled their debt when Shatat took over. Almost everyone did. Now, anyone paying a bill in the first few days gets a 15 percent discount and is entered in a drawing to win $50.

With the extra money, Bidya has put several poor people to work in temporary jobs and hired more full-time employees. Unlike the Palestinian Authority, which is often unable to pay salaries, everyone here is getting full pay.

In the view of its citizens, Bidya's record under Hamas is exactly what the United States said it wanted: a democratically elected Palestinian government that serves its people.

"Bidya is a model for what can happen," said Mohammed Salama, a city employee. "They should have given Hamas a chance, as they are giving Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in Iraq."

Shatat and other Bidyans are more moderate than many in Gaza or larger West Bank cities that have seen heavy Israeli reprisal for terror attacks. They implicitly recognize Israel's right to exist, but want it to give up land captured in the 1967 Mideast War and to stop what they call the "humiliation" of the Palestinian people.

"Simply, we don't want occupation," Shatat said. "Leave us alone and let us administer our institutions by our own hands."

A year ago, the mayor said he wouldn't seek another four-year term. Now, with so much to do, he is reconsidering.

Other countries have stepped into the gap left by the United States, with Austria paying for new sewers, and Japan, a rubbish recycling system. But the area needs an industrial zone. A factory for bottling olive oil. A soccer stadium, so young men will have a healthy way to work off their energy and frustrations.

"And a crane," the mayor said, passing around the Happy chocolates. "And don't forget, we still need a cultural center."

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