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Election Season Opens for Palestinians

With Change in Air, Fatah and Hamas Compete in First Local Voting Since '76

By Andy Mosher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page A08

DAHARIA, West Bank, Dec. 23 -- The sun slipped behind the rolling hills, and the temperature went down with it, but the line of would-be voters outside the Daharia Girls School on Thursday wasn't getting any shorter.

A few expressed their impatience by pounding on the school's steel doors, a few more by yelling at anyone who dared peek out. But most simply waited in the gathering darkness for their turn to cast a ballot in the first Palestinian municipal elections in nearly 30 years.

A crowd waits outside a polling station during local elections in the West Bank town of Jericho. At some sites, the process of vetting voters was slow. (Muhammed Muheisen -- AP)

"There are no problems here," said Shafik Kesiye, 48, a polling-place observer representing the Fatah movement, the Palestinian Authority's dominant party. "Everyone is voting freely. Maybe there are some administrative problems, but it's democracy."

In this town of 30,000 at the southern end of the West Bank, and in more than two dozen other small communities, Palestinians kicked off what is scheduled to be a lengthy election season. There is a presidential ballot set for Jan. 9 and legislative elections and more municipal votes due over the course of the coming year.

Elections for local councils were last held in 1976, and the winners have mostly retired or been forced from office over the intervening years, replaced by Fatah appointees whom many Palestinians regard as ineffective or corrupt. Though scheduled before Arafat's death, the new elections came just weeks before the vote to choose his successor and at a time when Israel is pushing forward with plans to evacuate the Palestinian-populated Gaza Strip. President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other world leaders have identified this confluence of events as an opportunity for Palestinians to demonstrate their commitment to democracy.

Thursday's balloting pitted Fatah, the movement founded by Yasser Arafat, against the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, for the first time. Several other factions also participated, and analysts said the outcome was likely to vary from town to town. Votes were still being counted late Thursday, and official results were not scheduled to be announced until Saturday.

Hamas, which rejected the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel and the system of limited Palestinian self-rule that they created, boycotted the previous general election, in 1996, and has vowed to do the same during the coming presidential campaign. But in Thursday's contest for local council seats in 26 West Bank towns and villages, candidates who openly identified themselves with Hamas ran on the slates of several self-styled Islamic parties.

In Abu Dis, a village on Jerusalem's eastern edge, Abdul-Basit Razem, an official of the local Hamas-aligned group, the Islamic Reform Bloc, stood outside his party's headquarters and gestured at the swarms of people milling about a busy intersection, chatting and debating in an animated way.

"Now, it is a festival for us to have these elections," said Razem, 36. "We are in a party now -- the Islamists and the others."

Inside the green-draped party office, Noryman Mustafa, 28, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who lives in Abu Dis and whose husband was running on the Islamic Reform Bloc ticket, said she had found the campaign to be "totally different" from those she experienced in the United States -- "maybe there's more democracy" here.

The Islamic bloc's supporters "feel it's going to make a difference," she said. "Other people, maybe they just want to be seen in a higher place, get prestige. Like, 'I'm somebody now,' you know?"

Ahmad Ayyad, candidate No. 3 on the Islamic bloc's slate, ran down a list of what he considered to be Abu Dis's most pressing needs: new roads, services for women, public parks, a central slaughterhouse that would abide by health codes.

His full beard signaled his affiliation with a radical Islamic movement that rejects the existence of Israel, but Ayyad also sounded like a garden-variety grass-roots policy wonk who said he wanted to "bridge the gap between the citizens and the local authorities."

Hamas is religious and Fatah secular, but though they are rivals, the campaign "went very well," Ayyad said. "The competition was healthy and was going smoothly."

At the polling place across the street, Samih Ibrahim Hasan, a pediatrician who described himself as a Fatah supporter, said the peaceful campaign and orderly election were not surprising. They reflected, he said, "how the Palestinian people think and their desire for liberty and freedom."

After the euphoria of the elections wears off, however, the reality facing the winners will be sobering, said Salah Ayyad, a candidate from the town's third major party, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. "Responsibility will be high for anyone elected here," he said, adding that years of Israeli occupation, settlement building and security measures had sapped Abu Dis of land, clean water and easy access to health care.

"Abu Dis is a center of the West Bank, a center of transportation between north and south," he added. "There is talk about making Abu Dis the capital of a Palestinian state. . . . To be in charge in Abu Dis will not be a simple or easy job."

In Daharia, a town tucked among terraced farms and forested hills about 25 miles south of Jerusalem, the campaign left many voters more bitter than optimistic. Four candidates on the local Hamas-aligned slate were arrested two weeks ago and remain in jail, prompting complaints from supporters of the Islamic party that their chances at victory had been undercut.

"I have no doubt that those arrests have had a negative impact on the faction," said one Hamas supporter, Othman Tel, 36. "Some people argue, 'How can you vote for a person who is in prison? How can he serve me in prison?' "

Any ill will among the voters outside the Daharia Girls School was only intensified by the long lines and slow process of vetting voters before allowing them to cast their paper ballots. Officials from several parties said that a disproportionate number of voters who had not registered in advance -- who nonetheless are permitted to vote, under Palestinian Authority rules -- had been directed to vote at the school, vastly overtaxing its capacity.

While scores of voters waited outside in the dark, the school's central hallway was crowded with women in veils, men in keffiyehs and security officers in a baffling variety of uniforms. "The only problem is that people are let in slowly to avoid chaos," Kesiye, the Fatah observer, said over the chaos.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company