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.
"Do we have a part in helping Hamas get strong? We do," said a senior Israeli army officer with the division responsible for the West Bank. "Did we do it on purpose? No. Could we have done it differently? That's for history to judge. But you have to remember that a number of these measures were taken at a time when there was blood everywhere."
Mahmoud Abdul Khalil is one of an estimated 17,000 people from Qalqilyah and its surrounding villages who lost jobs in Israel because they can no longer secure permits to cross into the country. He supports the new Hamas-linked leadership.
"We want to change faces here," said Khalil, 60, who supports his wife and eight children with the help of a monthly stipend from Hamas for food and health care. "We've never benefited from the peace process, not once," he said. "I'm convinced they will change the situation."
Israeli officials say the barrier rose here first because of the large number of attacks originating in the northern West Bank during the intifada. According to figures provided by Israel's General Security Service, 28 Israelis were killed in four attacks by suicide bombers from Qalqilyah during the intifada that began in September 2000.
Hamas political officials declined to discuss the operations of its armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, inside the city. Membership in the brigades can bring long Israeli prison sentences. Israeli military officials, however, say intensive army operations against the armed wing during the intifada have left it largely lifeless in the city.
The main avenue here is lined with shuttered shops, evidence of an unemployment rate that exceeds 70 percent by U.N. estimates.
Palestinian police swept trash and dirt from the stoop of their station one recent morning. In new fluorescent vests, officers directed traffic at intersections.
They do not carry guns. That will come when Israeli forces officially cede responsibility for the city's security to Palestinian authorities. But Israeli military officials say the Palestinian Authority has not yet done enough to control armed groups here, an accusation Fatah officials dismiss. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting Tuesday in Jerusalem that he intended to hand the city over to Palestinian authorities in two weeks, pending a security evaluation.
"This is all an Israeli game," said Mohammed Hazah, Fatah's general secretary in Qalqilyah, as he sat hunched glumly over a cup of strong coffee, discussing his party's trouncing. Slight, and graying at 57, Hazah spent a total of 22 years in Israeli jails, arrested for the first time in 1969 for taking part in an attack on an Israeli water pipeline.
Fatah chose the wrong people to run, he said, but he also suggested it was simply a bad time to be on the side of peace talks with Israel. "We have gotten no help from Israel, no support whatsoever," Hazah said. "This reflected on us in bad ways."
Many residents say their greatest burden is securing permits to enter the closed military area, which includes villages and farmland, between the barrier and the Israeli border, known as the Green Line. More than 70 sheep died during a pox outbreak last month in that area because the veterinarian did not have a permit to enter, residents here said.
Although it would likely benefit the Palestinian Authority politically, the official transfer of security responsibility to Palestinian police will not end the irksome permit system, which complicates trips to orchards and the transport of produce to markets.
"The wall made Qalqilyah famous, but it has had an extraordinarily negative effect on the city," said Hashem Masri, the new Hamas deputy mayor, sitting behind his large, tidy desk in city hall. "The wall was a factor in our election, generating the anger from the Palestinian people who are so much in need."
Masri, a pharmacist by training, is essentially the city's acting mayor. He said Wajih Quawass, the 39-year-old owner of a photo studio here and the elected mayor, has been held by the Israelis in administrative detention for the past 22 months for membership in Hamas.
Within the last three weeks, Masri said, two British diplomats visited him to talk with the new Hamas leadership. The conversation centered on Hamas's agenda of improving water and sewer service, completing the first public hospital and improving the local economy. Masri said he made clear that his focus would remain local.
Now, Masri and his colleagues are the ruling party at this local level for the first time. The people are watching and waiting for results. Ibrahim Halal, 37, owns a cell phone shop a few blocks from city hall. Business is poor, he said, but he has little faith that Hamas will improve matters.
"Hamas doesn't want peace," said Halal, who supported Fatah in the elections. "If they say the Palestinian Authority only gave us the wall, well, let's see them try to move it."