In Politics, Hamas Gains in the West Bank

Hashem Masri, 44, is one of 15 Hamas candidates who swept municipal elections in Qalqilyah last month.
Hashem Masri, 44, is one of 15 Hamas candidates who swept municipal elections in Qalqilyah last month. (By Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

QALQILYAH, West Bank -- Bilal Swaleh's journey from prisoner to politician began years ago in an Israeli jail cell. It ended triumphantly last month at the ballot box in this city populated by citrus growers, living along a wall separating the West Bank and Israel.

A butcher by trade, Swaleh was among the candidates affiliated with the militant Islamic movement Hamas who won all 15 municipal council seats. The victory placed Qalqilyah at the leading edge of a shift in Palestinian politics that is bringing some of Israel's most ardent enemies into public office. Seven of the new council members have served time in Israeli prisons. The newly elected mayor is still behind bars.

Swaleh attributes his success primarily to the network Hamas has built through charitable work, which supports thousands of people here and in villages nearby. But he said the wall, which Israeli officials said they built around the city for security reasons, has enhanced Hamas's standing more than ever and helped the group's members get elected.

"People are looking to change this situation for the better," said Swaleh, 38, who spent three years in Israeli jails for what he said was his affiliation with Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement. "The main reason we have won is because of our interaction with this society. But in terms of countering the occupation, well, Hamas is the pioneer also."

The Fatah movement dominates the Palestinian Authority, which is engaged in sputtering peace negotiations with Israel, but it is suffering in cities such as Qalqilyah. Some Palestinian officials say the economic hardship that has resulted from Israeli military operations in the West Bank, many of them designed to prevent attacks, has disillusioned former Fatah supporters and strengthened a radical movement that refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist.

The contest between Hamas and Fatah will likely determine the direction of the Palestinian government following the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements scheduled to begin in August. Palestinian parliamentary elections, recently postponed from their original July date by a Fatah leadership worried that Hamas will gain more ground, will likely follow soon after the pullout.

Hamas has been a force in the Gaza Strip for some time. But its victory in this West Bank city, with 57 percent of the vote, gave it a foothold in a region traditionally dominated by Fatah, which is now seen by many Palestinians as corrupt and powerless to confront the Israeli occupation.

Hamas advocates an Islamic government, and rejected the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel that established elected Palestinian government in parts of the occupied territories. The group also declined to take part in general elections. But last year, it decided to field candidates in municipal races.

Following their success at the polls, Hamas officials have met with European Union officials, to the dismay of Israeli officials. This month, low-level E.U. diplomats were given permission to meet with elected officials of Hamas -- considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States. These elected officials will soon be managing many local projects funded by foreign governments.

"Hamas is a terrorist organization -- period," said Gideon Meir, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official. "Anyone who talks with Hamas is giving legitimacy to the de-legitimization of the Jewish state."

This city of 43,000 people sits on the very edge of the West Bank. The sea is less than 10 miles to the west over a series of stony hills. Date palms sway in warm breezes. Lush green groves of grapefruit, oranges and lemon trees surround the town.

So does Israel's barrier. One of the first sections finished during the most recent intifada, the barrier here is a 25-foot-high wall in some places, swirls of barbed wire in others. It virtually surrounds the city, hemming it in more tightly than any other in the West Bank. Israeli soldiers stand watch over the only public entrance to the city and enter only during military operations. The United Nations, which operates schools and a hospital here, estimates that the barrier has separated more than 1,500 families from their land elsewhere in the West Bank.

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