GAZA CITY, May 5 -- Soheila Shaer's home in the southernmost reaches of the Gaza Strip is a concrete-block apartment house riddled with bullet holes, less than 200 yards from the volatile border with Egypt, where Israeli tanks and soldiers patrol each day.
Shaer and her neighbors in this desolate area of Rafah say they pine for peace with the Israelis, but when they look at the wasteland they call home, with its abandoned buildings and wind-swept fields of debris, they think first of the local government that has not repaired their houses or fixed their ravaged sewerage and electric systems.
Supporters of the Fatah movement celebrate in Rafah after their party's unofficial victory in local elections there.
(Emilio Morenatti -- AP)
In Thursday's municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Shaer exacted her revenge, voting against Fatah, the long-ruling party of the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. She gave her vote instead to Hamas, the radical Palestinian group.
"Hamas helps us, and they are fighting Israel," Shaer said, noting the group's extensive network of social services.
Since Hamas entered the political arena six months ago, support for the group has grown, but many voters here still express unease about Hamas, known officially as the Islamic Resistance Movement, because the group favors an Islamic government and rejects the existence of Israel.
"They are fundamentalists, extremists," Nuhaila Sultan, 32, a Fatah supporter, said after casting her ballot in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya. "They are putting too many obstacles in front of Mahmoud Abbas and his efforts for peace."
Abbas is the head of Fatah and Arafat's successor as the Palestinian leader, and Thursday's vote signaled that the party remains the most formidable force in Palestinian politics.
In municipal elections in 84 cities and towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Fatah appeared to stem the swelling tide of support shown for Hamas in two previous rounds of local elections.
Exit polls from voting in the 14 largest communities showed Fatah winning six while Hamas won three. No party captured a majority in five of the towns surveyed, according to exit polls by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. It could be several days before official results from all the communities are known.
Although Hamas did well in municipal elections in December and January, "it wasn't because Hamas had a splendid record of achievement. It was more that Hamas was very organized while Fatah was fragmented," said Khalil Shikaki, the center's director. Today, he said, "Fatah is better organized than it was. The shock of the January results has finally had its impact."
Hamas has said it will compete in elections July 17 for a new Palestinian parliament, the group's entrance into national politics. Many Israeli and Palestinian officials have said they are concerned that Hamas could interfere with the peace process with Israel if the group gains a large block of seats in parliament. That would be a significant blow to peace efforts after 4 1/2 years of intensified conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Still, many Palestinian politicians and analysts welcome Hamas's participation in electoral politics, saying it could eventually temper the group's violent anti-Israel ideology and transform it from a heavily armed militia into a conventional political party. But Israelis and other Palestinians worry that the opposite could happen, with Hamas exerting a radical influence on the Palestinian government and society.
Fatah has been handicapped by bitter internal fighting between leaders from the old guard who spent much of their lives in exile with Arafat, and younger, reform-minded leaders who grew up in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and feel disenfranchised.
Those internal problems remained on full display Thursday in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where 27 Fatah candidates apparently divided the vote, allowing Hamas to win six seats to Fatah's four. Five seats were won by other parties.
In contrast, Fatah was highly organized and disciplined in Rafah, the biggest Gaza town to hold an election.
The party's success in Rafah will likely give reformers more ammunition to demand that Fatah use primaries to select its candidates in the upcoming legislative elections.
"We've had internal problems, and now we want to elect everyone who represents us in the future in the legislative council and in every Fatah institution," said Abdallah Frangi, who leads the party's new voting mobilization office. "We want to rebuild everything inside our movement to build a new front against Hamas."
Correspondent Molly Moore in Jerusalem contributed to this report.