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PALESTINE - May 6 - Hamas Makes Strong Election Showing.

The Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, emerges as the winner in local elections, but the Islamic faction Hamas also makes a strong showing. The rivals are headed for even more important showdowns at the ballot box this summer. The results suggested that Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian politics for decades, and Abbas remain on top for now. But the voting also indicated that Hamas had transformed itself from a movement popular on the streets into a well-organised political operation. While the two groups and election officials offered slightly different figures, unofficial results indicated that Fatah won at least 45 of the 84 municipalities that voted in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on May 5. Hamas won at least 23 municipalities, including convincing victories in the three largest towns that were at stake. In the remaining 16 municipalities, smaller parties or independents got the largest number of votes, and in some cases there was no clear winner. "We expected more", Qadoura Fares, a leading Fatah official, told Israel radio. Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas leader, said he was pleased. "People voted for the Islamic program, the program of resistance, of change and reform", he said at a news conference in Gaza City. The Palestinians have held a presidential election and three rounds of local elections since December. Hamas boycotted the presidential vote, while the previous two rounds of municipal elections involved a limited number of small communities. Therefore, May 5 voting was considered the best barometer to date of the relative electoral strengths of Fatah, a secular, nationalist movement, and Hamas, which seeks an Islamic state. The next round of voting is just two months away. Palestinians plan parliamentary elections in July, and the final round of local elections, which includes the largest cities, is expected in either July or August. Abbas says he wants Hamas to call off its attacks against Israel and become a political party. Hamas has agreed to a temporary truce, and its decision to enter electoral politics suggests it might place less emphasis on fighting Israel. But Hamas still calls for the destruction of Israel and has always rejected negotiations with the Jewish state. The group could use its emerging political clout to oppose any negotiations between Abbas's government and Israel. Under Yasser Arafat, who founded Fatah, the movement faced only token political opposition from other Palestinian factions. But since Arafat's death last November, the Palestinian political scene is being rapidly reshaped. Abbas is calling for a restoration of law and order and an end to corruption, but has made only limited progress. Hamas has gained support among Palestinians in recent years with its suicide bombing campaign against Israel. The group has also won backing for running schools and health clinics, and providing food and money to Palestinians in need. Zahar was asked whether Hamas's control of municipalities in Gaza might lead Israel to reconsider its planned withdrawal from Gaza this summer. At a news conference he said: If they want to go, let them go. If they stay, we will continue our resistance. We respect the truce, but who said that we are throwing away our weapons"?. Zahar also said that the way the election results were presented did not fully reflect Hamas's success at the polls. In the West Bank, where Israel still carries out arrest raids, some Hamas candidates ran as independents, fearing they could be targeted by Israel if they were openly linked to Hamas. As a result, Zahar said, Hamas won more seats and control of more municipalities than it had been given credit for. According to Hamas's calculations, the faction won 34 places, he said. In addition, Hamas captured the biggest towns, which suggested it would do well in the next round of local elections, which will include the cities. In the smaller communities, voters are sometimes swayed by family and clan loyalties, rather than by party affiliation. Hamas won all 15 town council seats in Qalqiliya in the West Bank and captured 11 of 15 seats in Rafah, the scene of frequent fighting in southern Gaza, Zahar said, while sweeping the seats in the Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Geographic Code:7PALE
Date:May 7, 2005
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