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In Gaza, New Hamas-Dominated Council Attends to Basics
Public Services Win Praise of Residents

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 16, 2005

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip -- For the first time in the half-century that he's lived on a nameless dusty lane on the periphery of town, Mohammad Ali has a streetlight.

A few weeks ago, his grandchildren rode a bus to their school for the first time, eliminating the usual one-hour walk.

Ali, 63, the father of 16 children and a longtime loyalist of the late Yasser Arafat and his secular Fatah political movement, gives all the credit for the improvements in his family's daily life to the newly elected mayor and town council, now dominated by the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas.

"It's all about honesty," said Ali, his sinewy frame draped in a long white robe, his jaw covered with white bristle. "All these years, where did the money go? We haven't seen any of it. The leadership of Hamas is straightforward -- they don't discriminate between rich and poor, weak or strong."

In Beit Hanoun, Hamas candidates won 10 of the 13 council seats in local elections held in January. The mayor, chosen from among the council members, is Nazek Kafarna, 39, one of the most popular religious leaders in town.

Hamas -- with its armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades -- is condemned by the United States as a terrorist organization and reviled by Israel as the perpetrator of some of the deadliest suicide bombings of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. At the same time, Hamas has won respect among Palestinians by providing education and health programs. Now, when the U.S. and Israeli governments are demanding greater democratization of the Palestinian Authority, voters in the West Bank and Gaza are handing a sizable share of power to a group that many U.S. and Israeli leaders associate more closely with terrorism than with political reform.

Before a third round of municipal elections was held on May 5 -- the others were in December and January -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon demanded that Hamas not run in the more important July parliamentary elections unless it disarmed. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel should reconsider its plan to withdraw settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip if Hamas and other Islamic parties won significant representation in July; Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz countered immediately that the plan would go through regardless of Palestinian political developments.

"This is the choice of the community," said Walid Humidin, 44, one of Beit Hanoun's Hamas council members and a researcher at Gaza's Islamic University. "The world has to accept and respect their choice."

Candidates aligned with Fatah, which has been the dominant Palestinian party for decades, have won the most local council seats overall in both Gaza and the West Bank. But Hamas has been victorious in the larger, more influential cities where it has capitalized on disorganization and bickering within Fatah, as well as its reputation for corruption.

In addition to the victory in Beit Hanoun, Hamas this month claimed an overwhelming majority of seats on councils in the Gaza cities of Rafah and Bureij. It also edged out Fatah candidates in Beit Lahiya, a major town just across the highway from Beit Hanoun. In the West Bank, Hamas won all 15 seats in Qalqilya and majorities in other major municipalities.

In Beit Hanoun, and in communities across Gaza and the West Bank, Islamic politicians are earning wide support using old-fashioned tactics valued the world over: fixing potholes, picking up garbage and turning on the lights.

"The most important thing we've done at the street level is install streetlights and clean the roads," said Mohammed Masri, 30, a Hamas council member and director of an Islamic education center.

Forty miles south of the glass-walled, high-technology corridors of Tel Aviv, Beit Hanoun is a place with horse-drawn carts and donkeys in the streets. A town of low-rise concrete-block buildings and 32,000 residents in the northeastern corner of the Gaza Strip, it creeps to within a few hundred yards of the heavily patrolled and electronically monitored fence that separates Gaza from Israel. Few residents are permitted to leave the isolated confines of the 25-mile-long Mediterranean strip.

Few Palestinian towns have been more ravaged during the 4 1/2 -year uprising against Israel. Because of Beit Hanoun's proximity to the border, Hamas guerrillas and other Palestinian fighters used its outlying neighborhoods and fields as launching pads for the crude Qassam rockets they fired into nearby Israeli towns.

As a result, the Israeli military pummeled Beit Hanoun with tanks and helicopters during repeated incursions that killed at least 74 residents, destroyed or damaged 1,270 houses and bulldozed 1,875 acres of olive groves and other farmland, according to the mayor's office. City officials estimate that the conflict has cost Beit Hanoun $130 million, including revenue from agriculture and lost wages of residents who were barred from jobs inside Israel.

During the frequent sieges, Palestinians set fire to overflowing garbage bins in an effort to hide neighborhoods from Israel's U.S.-supplied AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships and pilotless drone aircraft. When Israeli troops entered the town, soldiers frequently shot out the streetlights, sometimes to allow more effective use of night-vision equipment and sometimes for target practice, according to accounts of Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.

Israeli bulldozers and tanks chewed the main roads into chunks of asphalt and broken concrete. Palestinian fighters seeded some streets with booby traps and explosives and heaped piles of stones and debris at key intersections in an effort to impede advancing tanks.

Today the main road into town has been repaved. New aluminum pylons line the median strip, each topped by electric floodlights and the fluttering green flags of Hamas.

On a half-dozen streets, Palestinian workers are laying new asphalt where Israeli armored bulldozers ripped it up. Street sweepers work daily, whisking away garbage.

Some members of the ousted Fatah-dominated local government are bitter.

Ibrahim Hammad, 67, was mayor for the last nine years. He lives in a large multistory family apartment complex surrounded by fruit trees. He walks with a cane, and his black pinstriped suit seems to swallow his shrunken figure.

"I consider this real propaganda," Hammad said of claims by Hamas that it is responsible for improving city life. "During my tenure we did our best to help the community."

The former mayor said Hamas is claiming credit for international aid programs that were offered under his administration but could not be carried out because of Israeli military operations. He said the period of calm since the election of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority in January has allowed Hamas to carry out many of those programs.

Hamas officials concede that cleaning streets, erecting streetlights and providing school bus service to marginalized communities addresses only a fraction of the city's ailments.

Kafarna, the current mayor, said the new council inherited a town that was bankrupt, with more than $1 million in debts. With unemployment at 80 percent, few citizens paid taxes or utility bills. Most of the city's $580,000 annual budget is financed by the United Nations, United States and European Union.

A community that once cultivated nearly a third of the produce consumed in Gaza now is forced to buy agricultural products from outside because so much of the farmland was destroyed by Israeli soldiers, Kafarna said. Fifty percent of the able-bodied workers in the city had jobs in Israel before the uprising. Because of Israeli restrictions brought on by fears of suicide bombers and other attacks, only 2 percent of the labor force is now granted permits to work in Israel, he said.

Even so, the new Hamas government has encouraged working residents to pay their bills by giving breaks on unpaid back taxes and discounts for citizens who pay on a regular monthly basis.

In the last month, the city collected more than $46,000 in taxes -- a 300 percent increase over the previous month and enough to cover the city payroll for the month, Kafarna said.

He conceded that the new council's popularity in the city may have a short shelf life. "One of our biggest problems is that the citizens are impatient," he said. "They want a magic wand to change the situation."

"They have four years," said Mohammad Ali, sitting in a plastic chair beneath his newly installed streetlight on the outskirts of the city. "If they don't do anything, we'll tell them bye-bye."

Researcher Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company