Hamas Wins Control of 3 West Bank Cities

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 17, 2005

NABLUS, West Bank, Dec. 16 -- West Bank politicians agreed Friday that surprising victories in municipal elections for the Islamic movement Hamas show that the Palestine Liberation Organization no longer has a lock on Palestinian politics.

According to official results in Nablus, Hamas swamped Fatah, the main faction of the PLO and the governing party in the West Bank. Hamas won 73 percent of the vote on Thursday and took 13 of 15 seats on the municipal council.

Political leaders in Nablus compared the success of Hamas to the rise of Fatah a half-century ago, when its founder and late leader, Yasser Arafat, took over the moribund PLO.

In Thursday's vote, Hamas also won control in two other major West Bank towns, Jenin and El Bireh. Fatah held on in Ramallah, which has a significant Christian minority. It won six seats and will govern there in coalition with another PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Hamas won three seats in Ramallah, which is the West Bank's political hub.

The size of the Hamas showing in Nablus and its victory in Jenin were unexpected, and the results cast next month's national legislative elections in a new light. Although analysts said voters would be cautious before accepting a Hamas-led government, they said it was clear that the organization poses a serious challenge to Fatah.

Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel, has carried out scores of suicide bombings against Israelis.

"We will finally see who really represents the Palestinian people," predicted Adnan Asfour, a top Hamas official in Nablus. A week ago, Asfour completed a two-year term in prison, his 16th imprisonment since 1979. He said he was active only in the political wing of Hamas.

"At this rate, we will disappear," said one Fatah official, who like other members of the organization here spoke on condition of anonymity.

The political advances for Hamas, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement, raise problems for the United States. The organization is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

Israeli spokesman Mark Regev, meanwhile, said his government would not negotiate with Hamas.

"Israel's position here is clear," he said. "As long as they are a terrorist organization, armed to the teeth, they are not a legitimate political partner."

On Wednesday, the Israeli military said troops uncovered a bomb factory at the Nablus home of a Hamas militant. A cache inside included suicide bomb belts and detonators, the army said.

Asfour, the Hamas spokesman, said the organization would keep fighting "with the enemy until the land is liberated." He did not answer directly when asked whether Hamas would accept a peace solution in which a Palestinian state would coexist next to Israel. "Hamas deals with reality. We can live with anyone under proper conditions," he said.

Asfour said Hamas would make an all-out effort to win the legislative vote. "We are going for full power. We will see which is acceptable -- our resistance or the project of negotiation promoted by Fatah."

He attributed the victory to a trend in the Middle East, exemplified by the Muslim Brotherhood's strong performance in Egypt's recent parliamentary elections, of Islamic-based forces gaining strength.

In the Gaza Strip, leaders were more cautious, according to news reports. They said Hamas would remain a minority party but form coalitions with Fatah rivals on specific legislation.

Palestinian analysts attributed the Hamas electoral success to its discipline and to disarray in Fatah.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has come up with a list of legislative candidates unacceptable to large numbers of young activists loyal to Marwan Barghouti, a jailed Fatah member from Ramallah .

Hani Masri, a Palestinian commentator for the al-Ayyam newspaper, said the possibility of a rebel Barghouti list of candidates and an official Fatah list running against each other opens the way for Hamas. "Fatah today is a sinking ship," he said.


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