OBEIDIYEH, West Bank -- In this nondescript town of 10,000 people four miles southeast of Jerusalem, a slate of candidates called the Reform Bloc campaigned hard against corruption in the governing Palestinian Authority in last month's municipal elections, the first for Palestinians in nearly three decades. When the final votes were tallied, the Reform Bloc swept seven of the town council's 11 seats, including that of the mayor.
Today, the government in Obeidiyeh is in the hands of the Islamic Resistance Movement, the radical Islamic organization known as Hamas that is labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israeli governments. The Reform Bloc candidates were all associated with Hamas, local officials and residents say, but adopted a more nondescript name for their slate because they feared attack or arrest by Israeli security forces.
The voters of Obeidiyeh, however, knew and embraced their true identities. In the same manner, in 26 communities across the West Bank, candidates associated with Hamas but campaigning under different banners won about 35 percent of 306 individual races. When negotiations are finished on the formation of coalitions, they could end up controlling or sharing control of governments in at least nine and as many as 13 municipal governments.
"It was a very big percentage. . . . No one expected Hamas to take that percentage," said Ghazi Hamad, the editor of Hamas's weekly newspaper, Ara Salah.
Hamas had never participated in an election in the Palestinian territories before last month's local balloting. The outcome, according to political analysts, politicians and voters, is a harbinger of the kind of campaigns that can be expected among a people who feel disenfranchised by their leaders, frustrated by years of corruption and worn down by conflict with Israel.
"People wanted change," said Ali Jerbawi, a political scientist at Birzeit University near Ramallah, the main city in the West Bank. "They were tired of 10 years of negotiations [with Israel] that went nowhere. . . . Hamas was the political opposition, and people identified with the opposition, if not with the Hamas ideology itself."
The local races, which drew 81 percent of registered voters, may also offer insights about the outcome of the election this Sunday to pick a new president of the Palestinian Authority to succeed Yasser Arafat, who died two months ago.
Hamas, which opposed the 1993 Oslo peace accords that created the Palestinian Authority, is not fielding a presidential candidate and has officially called on its members to boycott the election.
But some Hamas leaders said in recent interviews that Hamas was doing little to discourage members from voting and was quietly encouraging members to vote against the front-runner, former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, the candidate of Arafat's Fatah movement, to narrow the margin of his expected victory. Among those responding to a recent public opinion poll, Abbas held a commanding 43 percentage-point lead over his closest rival, Mustafa Barghouti, a human rights activist.
"Everyone has his own freedom," said Sami Abu Zohri, the Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip. "We won't force Palestinians to boycott, but we're not supporting any particular candidate."
The local election results were a particularly strong blow to Fatah, which used its power as the largest party in the Palestinian Authority to schedule the elections in several phases, political analysts and politicians said. The towns where elections were held in December were picked because they were places where Fatah was expected to win easily, giving the party momentum going into subsequent rounds, some Fatah leaders privately conceded.
"We expected Fatah to get 10 seats" on Obeidiyeh's 11-person council, said Shukri Radaideh, 45, a top Fatah leader in the region and head of the party in Obeidiyeh. The main problem, he said, was that 19 candidates associated with Fatah were on the ticket, which split the movement's vote, giving it just three seats, while all seven Hamas candidates and the lone independent were victorious.
"Fatah defeated itself" and was also hurt by its close association with the Palestinian Authority, he said. "Fatah was seen as the party in power, and because of mistakes, including corruption, the local Fatah paid the price."
Said Jerbawi, the political scientist: "These towns and villages were selected because Fatah thought they would get all the seats. . . . They were safe havens."