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Hamas takes over PA in continuation of terrorist ' peace process'

May 26, 2005

Militant Hamas striding into realm of legitimate politics

By Matthew Gutman, Special for USA TODAY SA'IR, West Bank — One of this town's new council members is single, an architect, a woman — and a member of the militant Hamas group who brashly declares her intention to "remove some officials long past their expiration date."

Supporters of Hamas participate in a campaign rally May 3 in the West Bank.

Hazem Bader, AFP/Getty

In short, Yamama Shalaldah is a problem for the Palestinian Authority's ruling Fatah Party.

Shalaldah, 27, was one of two women elected this month to the council in the first local elections held in this town of 21,300, latest of three rounds of Palestinian municipal elections since December. She rattles off plans to redesign the village's decrepit downtown, initiate a women's empowerment program and boost literacy rates.

Hamas, an extremist Islamic group, has surprised the dominant Fatah faction by winning more than one-third of the 84 localities contested in elections. Dedicated to the elimination of Israel, Hamas claims responsibility for many of the attacks that have killed more than 950 Israelis since the latest conflict erupted in September 2000. And until recent elections, Hamas had refused to take part in the government of the Palestinian Authority.

Now, the group branded a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union is combining its military activity with a legitimate political role.

Mixed signals

Hamas candidates defeated Fatah on May 5 in most of the larger towns up for grabs, including Rafah in Gaza and Qalqilya in the West Bank. In Sa'ir, Hamas won eight of the 13 seats.

Hamas' success has alarmed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who visits President Bush at the White House on Thursday. The two will discuss the threat from Hamas, along with Abbas' desire for U.S. assurances Israel will return to the "road map" peace plan after it evacuates settlements in the occupied Gaza in August.

There are signs Hamas' election success has hit home:

•Monday, the Palestinian Election Commission said it will delay parliamentary elections scheduled for July 17. The commission said it needed more time to prepare for balloting, in which Hamas candidates could have made big gains.

Hamas has accused Fatah of using logistical issues to push for a delay. Speaking last month to the Associated Press, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri warned that if the vote is postponed, "the Hamas movement will be pushed to re-evaluate its position" on the fragile cease-fire with Israel.

•Thursday, a Palestinian court ordered partial revotes in two Gaza areas — the Bureij refugee camp and the town of Beit Lahiya — where Hamas won a narrow majority. A court in southern Gaza ordered a recount of some polling stations in Rafah, Gaza's third-largest town, in response to a Fatah challenge to Hamas wins.

Hamas victories have generated anxiety beyond the Palestinian territories. On May 9, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel should cancel its planned withdrawal of troops and settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank this summer if Hamas wins a majority in the parliamentary elections. Shalom warned, "It would be impossible to move forward (in the peace process) with a movement that is seeking to destroy us."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher had a more tempered response to Hamas' success. "It's our hope that all those elected would share that commitment (to peace)," he said on May 5. But he added, "Our view of Hamas has not changed. They remain a designated terrorist organization."

Speaking by phone from Ramallah, Sheik Hasan Yosef, Hamas' West Bank leader, says municipal election results show "our credibility is higher than ever. And remember, we ran not to win, but to help bring reform."

Changing attitudes

Issa Tawara, a Sa'ir taxi driver, says he switched his support from Fatah to Hamas because of the rampant corruption that benefited Fatah officials. "Enough with the theft," says Tawara, 36. "Money that came into the municipality was distributed among Fatah members, not for local projects." He adds: "I am not Hamas, but I felt that we needed change."

Council member Shalaldah agrees that Hamas candidates fared well because they offered reform. "This town has reached a stage of retardation," Shalaldah, her head covered in the black head scarf of a religious Muslim woman, says in an interview in her family home. "Everything was based on tribalism and clan. Now, my party is elected with qualified personnel."

The previous mayor, she says, "cared mostly about paying his supporters." The corruption began at the top, with the late Palestinian leader and Fatah Party chief Yasser Arafat, who rewarded his cronies. Adli Sadiq, a columnist for Fatah's party-controlled newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida, says, "Fatah left the corrupt to manage the movement."

Hamas has stepped forward over the past decade to fill the void. Working through its Dawa social organization, the group provided poor Palestinians, mostly in Gaza, with health care, kindergartens and a variety of welfare programs.

To Shalaldah, political legitimacy means having an opportunity to work openly on these social programs. "Now, not only will our budget and expenditures be on the books, but we will put them on the Internet as well," she says in a jab at the opaque style of the city's former Fatah leadership.

The new leaders of Sa'ir have a lot of work ahead. The town is $1.75 million in the red. Suleiman Shalaldah, head of the new Hamas candidates list and a relative of Yamama Shalaldah, blames the deficit on bureaucratic waste, poverty created by constant fighting with the Israelis, and residents' unwillingness to pay taxes to a municipality they distrust. Suleiman Shalaldah drafted a 10-year plan to streamline local government. "We intend to do better than the previous municipality, God willing," he says.

Fatah official Idriss Sakker Jaradat, who runs the Sanabel Center for Heritage Studies in Sa'ir, agrees that Hamas' victory here and in other districts had less to do with the party's Islamic fundamentalist platform and hatred of Israel than a search for fresh faces and honest government. Hamas was "clever. Their list included educated people with professional credibility," Jaradat says. He rattles off the names of Hamas' candidates: a statistician, two teachers, a local administrator, two businessmen and "a female architect": Yamama Shalaldah.

"Who did we (Fatah) have? A former dishwasher in an Israeli restaurant, an (illiterate), an aging former teacher and a former mayor who appealed only to the tribal ways." Jaradat says Fatah stripped him of his own candidacy because he rejected clan and tribal maneuvering. He ran, and lost, as an independent.

Looking ahead

Clan-leader and Fatah candidate Yunis Lifrukh — among Sa'ir's 4,000 illiterates and the candidate Jaradat refers to — is still seething about his loss. "Hamas cheated," he says. "Anybody knows that with a computer you can change the numbers." But Shannon O'Connell, director of the West Bank and Gaza Office for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, a non-governmental group that monitors elections worldwide, found no irregularities in Sa'ir.

Lifrukh understands that Hamas-run towns and villages could spoil a key source of revenue: foreign donations. "What happens," Lifrukh asks, "if the U.S. wants to punish Sa'ir because of Hamas and withholds funds, what then?" The construction of several local projects including a school down the street was funded by foreign aid. In 2004, the United States spent about $200 million on similar Palestinian projects, according to U.S. Embassy spokesman Paul Patin.

Alarm over an ascendant Hamas may be premature. Columnist Sadiq notes that a sweeping Hamas victory in the parliamentary elections this summer is unlikely. Results of the municipal vote showed "Fatah moving one step forward, while Hamas proceeded many steps forward," he says. Fatah, he adds, "is still the ruling party with much of the muscle to rule."

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