This item is available on the Militant Islam Monitor website, at http://www.militantislammonitor.org/article/id/1569
January 22, 2006
A Palestinian security man waits outside the polling station to cast his vote for the parliamentary elections in the West Bank city of Nablus on Saturday. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)
Hamas poised for big showing in vote
NABLUS, West Bank (AP) - The militant Islamic group Hamas is poised to do well in Wednesday's Palestinian parliamentary elections - maybe even too well for its own liking.
Palestinian officials and Hamas candidates say that even if the Islamic group wins, it would rather stay out of the driver's seat if that means having to talk to Israel and the West.
But the boost that the vote is sure to give militants committed to Israel's destruction is raising the prospect of profound but unpredictable change in Palestinian politics and Mideast peacemaking, leaving Israel, the United States and Europe wondering how to deal with Hamas' extraordinary rise.
The long-ruling Fatah party of the late Yasser Arafat had been expected to pull off a narrow victory, but new poll numbers released Friday had Hamas drawing even.
The Palestinians and the rest of the world are asking: Can incorporating Hamas into politics and government tame it, or will that merely elevate radicals who reject peace? Recent comments by senior Hamas members signal it could go either way.
The United States and the European Union have sent conflicting messages about Hamas, pressuring Israel behind the scenes to let Hamas participate in the election while at the same time publicly refusing to deal with what they deem a terrorist group.
Hamas' inclusion in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council could hurt new peace hopes kindled by an unusually conciliatory stance from acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who took over after Ariel Sharon's devastating
Since assuming office, Olmert has expressed a desire to resume talks with Palestinians on a final peace deal, given approval for Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote and ordered a crackdown on illegal Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
The elections are taking place against a backdrop of alarming lawlessness in the Palestinian territories, with several armed factions threatening to disrupt the vote, likely for fear of losing influence. Fatah-affiliated gunmen from the Balata refugee camp near Nablus told The Associated Press that they would burn down polling stations.
"As long as we are alive, there will be no elections in Balata," said Alaa Sanakra, leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in the camp.
Further boosting Hamas' electoral prospects are dozens of Fatah activists running as independents and threatening to split the Fatah vote. Most have refused to heed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' call to withdraw from the race.
The Iranian-financed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon also have been supporting Hamas in the elections, said a Fatah-affiliated gunman who spoke on condition of anonymity because Hezbollah did not want him to go public. The gunman said a senior Hezbollah operative called him to ask that his group refrain from disrupting the vote - a request the gunman said he rejected.
A poll released Friday by the independent Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre put Fatah and Hamas in a virtual dead heat for the first time - 32 per cent for Fatah and 30 per cent for Hamas, with the rest of the vote divided among independents and various other parties. The survey of 1,000 voters had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Hamas activists have played on the theme that it was their rockets and suicide bombings that pushed Israel out of the Gaza Strip last summer, not negotiations. "Ten years of failed talks equalled four years of resistance!" Hamas posters proclaim.
At a Gaza border crossing recently opened after painstaking talks with Israelis, Americans and Europeans, a Fatah leader delivered a very different line: "We are the pioneers in building the homeland," Mohammed Dahlan said as he handed out sweets and Qur'ans to Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca.
Fatah's message, however, may be undermined by the party's long history of corruption and nepotism.
"We want to change the flavour," said Nimr Derbas, a 25-year-old in the West Bank city of Nablus. "Hamas people are closer to their God, close to their religion, and I think that's better."
During the campaign, Hamas has emphasized jobs and clean government over "armed struggle" - running under the party name Change and Reform.
Yasser Mansour, who holds the No. 5 spot on Hamas' list of candidates, said a long-term truce with Israel is possible and both Israeli and Palestinian civilians should be protected from violence.
"We have enough political flexibility to deal with reality without recognizing (Israel's) illegal occupation" of the Palestinian lands, he said during an interview in a run-down building in Nablus.
But Hamas has refused to renounce its charter calling for Israel's annihilation and many of its candidates still speak of holy war.
"Hamas renews its commitment to you that we will remain loyal to jihad and resistance, loyal to the rifles and to Jerusalem," Hamas' top candidate, Ismail Haniya, told about 10,000 cheering supporters in Gaza on Friday.
Hamas has won municipal elections in many of the most of important cities in Gaza and the West Bank, including Nablus. European countries and even U.S. agencies continue their contacts with those towns, and Israel has been coordinating with Hamas-backed mayors on day-to-day issues such as water and electricity.
A strong showing on Wednesday could put Hamas in charge of key Palestinian ministries that normally have contact with Israel and the West.
But Palestinian officials and Hamas candidates told AP that Hamas members have no interest in becoming prime minister or foreign minister even if the group wins the election, preferring portfolios such as health, education and social welfare.
"We are not ready to talk to the Israelis," said Mansour.
January 23 2006
Family Fissure in Hebron
The city's best-known candidate campaigns in an armoured Chevy Suburban with tinted windows and room for the ruling Fatah Party bodyguards who shadow him around the West Bank. One of his main rivals drives his own dented Hyundai with a green Hamas flag tied to the radio antenna.
But there's more here than the general snapshot of January 25 elections for the Palestinian parliament - which has come down to a battle between the old guard Fatah bosses who sought peace with Israel and the new political wing of Hamas militants who call for Israel's destruction.
In Hebron, it's brother against brother. For Fatah: one of the late Yasser Arafat's most swaggering proteges, Jibril Rajoub. On the Hamas slate: his younger brother, Nayef, a longtime student and beekeeper who has picked up the Hamas lingo of Islamic values and the need to uproot the corruption and cronyism of Arafat's era.
The contest shows the depths of the ideological splits among Palestinians. A December poll predicted the brothers to be among the top vote-getters in the important Hebron district.
They also offer vivid lessons on the passions driving Hamas and Fatah's attempts to display an image of maturity and self-correction after the demagoguery of Arafat.
Few were closer to Arafat than Jibril Rajoub. After being jailed and expelled by Israel, he became part of Arafat's inner circle in the late 1980s when the Palestine Liberation Organisation was based in Tunisia. Jibril later rose to become the powerful security chief in the West Bank, sometimes called the "the king."
His campaign entourage is a bevy of armed escorts, handlers and hangers-on. Jibril works hard to play his two most important cards: his ties with Arafat and how he was not afraid to go his own way. Four years ago - with Arafat feeling threatened by Jibril's influence - tensions reached a point where Arafat pull his pistol and tried to punch him.
"I'm an obedient soldier in Fatah," he said before meeting a group of business and cultural leaders in Hebron's best hotel in January. But he openly talks of the need for a Fatah facelift with more accountability and public outreach after the imperious ways of the "the godfather."
"Arafat did build some sort of patriarch regime that we accepted voluntarily," said Jibril, 52, a hefty man who favours Western business suits. "Since his (death), there is a real problem in Fatah ... but I'm not worried or concerned about Fatah." Fatah, he said, is not in a political intensive care unit.
Hamas loyalists might disagree. The newly formed political arm has been making deft moves.
Its attacks on perceived corruption in Fatah resonate strongly with ordinary Palestinians who have watched the economy nosedive but leaders able to maintain villas and luxury cars. Hamas promises are tangible - improved roads, more clinics, better schools.
Other parts of the Hamas agenda are less clear. Its pro-Islamic credentials are proclaimed, but it makes no pledges to bring to the West Bank the type of strict lifestyle rules, like a ban on alcohol, that some Hamas factions press in the violence-torn Gaza Strip, which was turned over to Palestinian control last year with Israel's withdrawal.
On January 17, Hamas began distributing a 20-point election platform that includes the aim of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. It's essentially a copy of Fatah's declarations. But Hamas only referred to "resistance" - an apparently softer line than its past praise for its suicide bombers and calls for Israel's violent end. Hamas has largely adhered to a ceasefire declared almost a year ago.
That has not eased worries about the expected strong showing by Hamas in the 132-seat parliament.
Washington has said it plans to review its $US350m ($A468.98m) aid pledge to the Palestinians if Cabinet posts go to Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States and others. Israel demands that Hamas renounce violence before it could consider talks. But Israel has dropped earlier threats to block the election if Hamas takes part.
"The world is dealing with a new reality that Hamas is part of," said Mushir Masri, a spokesman for Hamas in Gaza. Hamas boycotted the last parliamentary elections in 1996.
A poll by Bir Zeit University has forecast 31 per cent support for Hamas, compared with 35 per cent for Fatah and 22 per cent undecided. The margin of error was three per cent. That represents a seven-point gain for Hamas and 10-point Fatah drop from a month ago.
The campaign trail of Nayef Rajoub helps to explain why.
In the village of Idna - part of the Hebron district - nearly 200 people turned out in a chilly rain last week for Nayef and several other candidates wearing casual clothes, green Hamas baseball caps and scarves with verses from the Quran, the Muslim holy book. The crowd carried poster-size portraits of other Hamas candidates in Israeli jails. Hamas, they chanted, "is the foundation for everything".
"Hamas is the eyes, ears and heart of the people," said the bearded Nayef, 48, inside an unheated community centre. Later, Hamas hosted a lunch of grilled lamb sandwiches and orange soda.
Hebron is a sensitive part of the political map. The city, about 35km south of Jerusalem, is the biggest city in the West Bank and the district hold nine seats in parliament. It's also is one of the thorniest struggles between Palestinians and Jewish settlers, who both hold strong links to Hebron through the tomb of Abraham - considered the father of the Jewish nation and a prophet in Islam.
Jewish settlers have built large communities on the city's edge and claimed individual buildings inside the centre. The Israeli army blocks some major streets, flanked by empty Arab shops spray-painted with the Star of David.
The Rajoub brothers grew up on a farm of chickens and goats in the nearby village of Dura. Jibril joined Fatah as a teenager in 1969 - a year after his first arrest by Israeli authorities. Nayef went abroad, studying at the University of Jordan. He fell in with Muslim Brotherhood, which was supplied the ideological underpinnings for Hamas and later groups such as al-Qaeda.
He returned to religious studies at Hebron University and is now close to completing his doctorate. Meanwhile, he became a behind-the-scenes player in Hamas. He was most recently held by in Israel prison last year.
Nayef, however, said he never took part in attacks - although he offers sympathy for the uprising fighters and for suicide bombing "martyrs".
"We believe they are in heaven," he said. "We were pushed to this by Israel. God willing, we won't have to go back to this."
But he said Hamas would make no concessions on its demands for Jerusalem or Palestinian independence.
"We will hold talks with Israel, but on our terms," he said. "If they cannot accept that, then we have nothing to say."
What do the brothers say to each other?
"We don't argue," said Nayef. "Blood is thicker than politics."
Added Jibril: "Yes, we are candidates for different factions, but both of us are Palestinians. Both of us are committed to national unity."
This item is available on the Militant Islam Monitor website, at http://www.militantislammonitor.org/article/id/1569