Voters Defy Predictions Even in Fatah Stronghold

Hamas supporters celebrate the party's election victory on the streets of Ramallah, the West Bank city where the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters.
Hamas supporters celebrate the party's election victory on the streets of Ramallah, the West Bank city where the Palestinian Authority has its headquarters. (By Uriel Sinai -- Getty Images)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 27, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Jan. 26 -- Mohammed Kanan is a teacher of Islamic studies at a high school in this city once known as a secular stronghold of the governing Fatah movement. Now it is a different kind of landmark on the scrambled electoral map of the Palestinian territories, a place that defied predictions and elected a slate of Hamas candidates to parliament.

Kanan, fastidious in a tie and closely trimmed beard as he strolled Thursday through a downtown still draped with evidence of the campaign, was part of the electoral uprising here that helped end Fatah's decade-long dominance of the Palestinian Authority. His reasons for choosing Hamas's Change and Reform ticket were based on the simple calculus that governs politics everywhere.

Hamas helped him.

The Islamic Resistance Movement, as Hamas is formally known, paid for his studies at Al-Quds University. It pays a stipend to his neighbors who have fathers and sons in Israeli jails. And it supports the families of those who have died in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including some who blew themselves up in suicide attacks that killed Israeli civilians. Committed to the destruction of Israel, Hamas maintains an armed wing that has carried out numerous bombings and other attacks.

"Naturally, they won," Kanan said. "These elections were truly democratic and showed the true will of the Palestinian people."

The triumph of Hamas, which has pledged to create a Palestinian nation on land that now includes the Jewish state, may appear to be a vote for broader confrontation. Israeli officials are already declaring that they no longer have a viable partner for peace talks.

But Hamas is being carried along by a more complicated mix of popular sentiments and the party's own deft organization. The party has risen on the failures of Fatah's peace efforts, the growing appeal of Islam at a time of political uncertainty, and Fatah's inability to improve Palestinians' lives at the most basic level during a decade in power.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and Fatah's leader, has dedicated his time in office to reviving negotiations with Israel under the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map," which envisioned an independent Palestinian state by the end of 2005. But in the West Bank, Israeli military checkpoints still dot the landscape, despite agreements to remove some of them, and Israeli forces carry out regular operations in many cities. In the Gaza Strip, where Jewish settlers were evacuated by the Israeli government last year, many Palestinians have concluded that fighting Israel -- as Hamas did and has pledged to keep doing -- has produced results that negotiations failed to achieve.

"Never in history has surrender brought peace," said Ahmed Ali Taha, a stooped 82-year-old merchant who said he supported Fatah in previous elections but cast his vote Wednesday for Hamas.

While Hamas's rejection of peace talks inspires young followers, its campaign also used television advertising to sand off its rougher edges for moderate voters who worried about a potential rise in violence if it prevailed.

"When it comes to their resistance, people have a right to be worried, because more than anything right now we need someone who is going to make our life easier," said Nashat Aqtash, a professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank who designed the Hamas media strategy. "But the social work softens that, and this is the direction they took in the campaign."

Fatah, long led by the late Yasser Arafat, began the campaign divided between younger members, who came of age in the territories during the Palestinian uprisings, and the founding generation that fills out the party's senior leadership and the Palestinian Authority, which is headquartered in Ramallah. An effort to unite the party through its first-ever primary ended in charges of fraud and two candidate lists. Abbas eventually arranged for one list, but months of potential campaign time were wasted. Hamas, meanwhile, ran its first national election campaign with its characteristic discipline.

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