Hamas gains in West Bank elections


JERUSALEM -- As preliminary results in some municipal elections in the West Bank showed the militant group Hamas making political gains, Israel continued its weeklong offensive against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Israeli forces killed two wanted men in a raid near Nablus yesterday and seriously wounded another, while also killing a young Palestinian who was throwing stones, witnesses said.

In the six days since Israel's operation began in response to rocket fire from Gaza, Israel has arrested 441 alleged members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and killed at least five in raids, with three militants killed Thursday near Jenin.

The Israeli "First Rain" campaign of airstrikes, targeted killings, army raids and coordinated sonic booms over Gaza will continue, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz vowed in remarks published yesterday.

"We don't intend to ease up until they understand we have a deterrent policy," he said. "We have made it clear that we won't allow this to go on. The Gaza Strip will shake."

Mofaz has also warned that key Hamas political leaders in Gaza, such as Mahmoud al-Zahar and Ismail Haniya, could be killed.

Some Israeli military officials suggest that the raids are intended to try to cripple Hamas before Palestinian legislative elections on Jan. 25. The mass arrests do seem to have had an impact on the local elections Thursday in 104 towns and villages, with senior Hamas figures in the West Bank who were running for seats, such as Sheik Hassan Youssef, arrested with no indication of when they might be released.

The elections, the third of four rounds of local votes, encompassed about 10 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with the largest cities still to vote before the end of the year.

Preliminary vote totals showed that the main Fatah faction of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, rebounded slightly and took 54 percent of the votes, while Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist group by the United States, took about 26 percent, down slightly from earlier rounds in which it won 30 percent or more.

Fatah appeared to win majority control of about 60 of the 104 councils, while Hamas won 28 of them. Turnout was about 85 percent, according to the Palestinian Election Commission.

Hamas officials complained that the Israeli raids and arrests hurt their showing, but local elections, especially in villages, are often influenced more by family or clan connections than by political ideology. So the results might not be a good indicator for the legislative elections, where half the seats will be elected by party lists and half through constituency voting.

Hamas had candidates running in only 56 councils, meaning it won half of them.

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