Hamas sees wins in West Bank voting

December 17, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM -- The Islamic militant group Hamas won sweeping victories Thursday in local elections in some of the West Bank's largest cities, according to preliminary results released yesterday.

The voting, which occurred six weeks before crucial parliamentary elections, was a considerable blow to the Fatah faction, which has dominated the Palestinian Authority but has fractured in the year since the death of Yasser Arafat.

There will be another round of local voting in two weeks in Gaza and Hebron, but Israeli officials are taking the level of support for Hamas very seriously.

Yuval Diskin, the head of the Israeli Shin Bet counterintelligence organization, believes that a Hamas victory in the legislative elections scheduled for Jan. 25 cannot be ruled out, according to the Maariv newspaper.

Hamas runs numerous educational and charitable organizations financed with money from outside and has an active military branch that it refuses to disarm.

Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of Israel and its replacement with a Palestinian state, is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

Hamas swept Nablus, a former Fatah stronghold, with 73 percent of the vote and 13 of the 15 seats, and won decisively in Al Bireh, next to Ramallah.

Hamas won control of the Jenin city council by one seat, while Fatah apparently kept control of Ramallah, which is where most Palestinian Authority ministries are based, including the headquarters of Arafat's successor as Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

But even in Ramallah, Hamas won about 30 percent of the votes.

In Nablus, thousands of Hamas members and supporters gathered in the city center chanting, "God is great," and carrying the new mayor of the city, Adli Yaish, on their shoulders.

Fatah did better in smaller villages and won 35 percent of the 414 seats at stake Thursday, compared with the 26 percent won by Hamas. But Yasir Mansour, a Hamas spokesman in the West Bank, told journalists that the vote "shows that the Palestinians support reform, resistance and loyalty to the blood of the martyrs" and will be "a huge motivation for Hamas to continue its path."

Raed Nuyrat, head of the political science faculty at Al Najah National University in Nablus, attributed the "collapse" of Fatah in these elections to its recent disputes and divisions, which he said would also affect the January elections.

"Hamas' numbers in Nablus are amazing," he said in an interview. "They show significant progress for Hamas in a city that was a headquarters for Fatah. Fatah's divisions in the legislative elections could lead Hamas to power."

Issam Abu Baker, Fatah's leader in Nablus, told the Associated Press: "We didn't think for a moment that Hamas would win so many votes. The earth shook under our feet, and this will have an effect on the parliament."

The West Bank has been considered Fatah's base, with Hamas more popular in the conservative, smaller and isolated Gaza Strip. Still, Hamas has been making progress in the West Bank, taking the large cities of Qalqiliya and Bethlehem in an earlier round and nominating well-educated candidates known for their probity and piety.

The voting, which took place in 42 towns and cities, was considered an important test of sentiment before the parliamentary elections, in which Hamas is running for the first time against an apparently divided Fatah, whose younger generation, led by the jailed Marwan Barghouti, has registered a rival slate to that of Abbas.

Hamas has been getting about 32 percent of the vote in polls for the January elections, to Fatah's 50 percent. But a stronger Hamas showing, let alone an unlikely majority of the seats, would present major challenges to Israel, the United States and Hamas itself, and would likely halt any kind of peace process, giving Israel more cause to continue with unilateral policies.

Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, said yesterday that Israel could not ignore a Hamas victory. "But Hamas will also have a problem," he told Israel radio. "If Hamas wins a majority, it will have to conduct a policy that it does not agree with and conduct foreign relations on an ideological basis that it rejects, formally. It will have to change. This will not be simple at all."

Also yesterday, an Israeli father of five, Yossi Shok, 35, was shot and killed when Palestinian militants fired on his car near the West Bank city of Hebron. Two other passengers were wounded. Raanan Gissin, an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, denounced the killing and said Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have to crack down "and stop providing sanctuary to these terrorists."

Gissin said, "The Palestinians have to run their political campaigns with ballots, not with bullets, and shouldn't compete at the expense of Israeli lives."

Israel is pressed to open the roads to free Palestinian traffic, he said, "and then we suffer the attacks of terrorists on Israelis who are using the roads and we're forced to take measures that prevent Palestinians from using them."

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