Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah movement fended off a strong challenge by the Islamic militant group Hamas in local elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip today, with Fatah winning 56% and Hamas with 33% of the vote.
The corruption-tainted Fatah had feared defeat in the elections, but the results indicated the party won a majority of the races in 84 communities. However, Hamas established itself as a major political player, and won the three biggest contests – in the towns of Qalqiliya, Rafah and Beit Lahiya.
The local elections were seen as the final test for Abbas before parliament elections in July. Abbas has been seeking to persuade Hamas to give up violence and transform itself into a political party, but is also concerned an increasingly powerful hardline opposition can hinder his peace efforts with Israel.
Fatah officials said they had hoped to do better.
“The results didn’t live up to our expectations,” said Kadoura Fares, a Fatah legislator and leader of the movement’s younger activists, who have been clamouring for reform.
In Gaza City, senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said polling results showed that “people voted for the Islamic program, the programme of resistance, of change and reform”.
Final unofficial results showed Fatah winning 56% of the votes and Hamas winning 33%, with the remainder going to independents and smaller parties.
The results showed Hamas winning all 15 city council seats in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya. In Rafah in the Gaza Strip, Hamas had 10 seats compared to five for Fatah. In Beit Lahiya, another Gaza town, Hamas won seven seats compared to six for Fatah.
In the West Bank town of Salfit, Fatah won 13 seats compared to two for Hamas. In a sign of the militants’ strength even in areas with large Christian populations, Hamas won five of the seven seats allotted to Muslims in the town of Bethlehem, which has a total of 15 seats.
Final official results are expected on Sunday.
“I think this is a really great day for the Palestinian people. This is a message from the Palestinians that they want to elect their leaders in direct, free and fair elections,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.
The elections are difficult to interpret, because tribal rivalries and local matters counted at least as much as party affiliations. The most important test comes on July 17, when Palestinians vote for a new parliament after 11 years - and Hamas fields candidates for the first time.
With the late Yasser Arafat and his mythical, charismatic leadership out of the picture, Palestinians are openly criticising the Fatah Party he headed and the government he created for widespread corruption, nepotism and inefficiency - and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, could pay the price despite efforts to clean up the government and its security forces.
Hamas has set itself up patiently with years of welfare programmes for impoverished Palestinians, especially in Gaza, and is poised to take advantage of voter disaffection with Fatah.
“We are very honest and work much more than the others,” said Khaled Saada, a Hamas candidate for Bethlehem town council, citing schools, clinics and orphanages run by his group. “It is confirmed that we are much better at helping people.”
Hamas participation in elections bolsters Abbas’ hopes to co-opt the militants into mainstream Palestinian politics. But a strong Hamas showing in Thursday’s and other votes, especially this summer’s parliamentary ballot, would harm Abbas’ plans for a renewed Mideast peace track.
Hamas is sworn to Israel’s destruction despite agreeing to a temporary ceasefire along with other militant groups in March.
Fatah took a beating in two earlier rounds of local voting, and Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki said party leaders learned their lessons from that. Fatah “did a good job preparing for this election by unifying itself and making a strong team with effective people,” he said.
Turnout was strong, with 70% of voters going to the polls in the West Bank and 80% in Gaza, according to election officials. The only reported incident of violence came from a town in central Gaza, where Hamas backers exchanged fire with police. One person was wounded. Each side blamed the other for the clash.
In Atara, a village near Ramallah in the West Bank, Palestinian security said Fatah gunmen raided election headquarters and stole the ballot boxes. Hamas activists said Fatah feared Hamas had won.
Many voters were prepared to try Hamas after what they saw as a Fatah failure.
“Who will work for our future, for our children?” asked Maalik Salhab, a 24-year-old biology student who was wearing a green Hamas hat in Bethlehem and voted for the group on Thursday.
“If I see the outside world refusing to help us and then call Hamas terrorists, then I have the right to choose Hamas because they are doing all these things for me.”
In the latest challenge to the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians, militants fired two rockets into southern Israel, one of which damaged an empty house, late on Thursday, and fired a mortar shell early today at a Jewish settlement in Gaza.
With attacks proliferating, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz signalled that Israel’s patience is wearing thin. “In the case of Qassam rockets, we have to react resolutely, but with moderation,” security officials quoted him as saying on Thursday.
Also today, the army said a military court has convicted an army sergeant for shooting an unarmed Palestinian in the Gaza Strip in late 2003. The unidentified soldier, who was commander of a military outpost near Rafah in southern Gaza, opened fire after seeing the man climb a ladder he leaned against rooftop antennae, the army said. The soldier falsely reported he opened fire because the man was armed.
The soldier, who was not identified, faces up to 20 years in prison.