Ruling Fatah movement's strong show in local vote

The Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas made an unexpectedly strong showing against key rival Hamas in local elections in dozens of West Bank towns and villages, according to final results published today.

The Fatah movement of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas made an unexpectedly strong showing against key rival Hamas in local elections in dozens of West Bank towns and villages, according to final results published today.

Though the elections were mostly about local issues such as roads and water, Fatah’s showing was in line with a recent modest rise in support for the party following Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip.

In yesterday’s balloting in 104 small communities, with a turnout of 81%, Fatah won 54% of the vote, compared to 26% for Hamas. Fatah candidates won outright in 51 villages and Hamas in 13. In the remaining 40 communities, there was no clear outcome and coalitions talks were getting under way.

Israeli-Palestinian violence persisted today as the election results came in. Israeli troops killed two Palestinian militants in a shootout early in the day, and local hospital officials said soldiers shot dead a Palestinian teenager as he hurled rocks at an army patrol.

Israel’s military offensive – which began last weekend after Palestinian militants in Gaza fired homemade rockets at an Israeli town – will continue without let-up, Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said in an interview published today.

“We have made it clear that we won’t allow this (rocket fire) to go on,” Mofaz told a weekly, Jerusalem. “The Gaza Strip will shake.”

However, Mofaz said retaking parts of Gaza, from which Israel pulled out nearly three weeks ago, would be the very last resort. “I won’t be eager to send Israeli soldiers into Gaza,” he said.

Faced with early results showing a worse-than-expected outcome, the Hamas militant group complained that many of its candidates were detained by Israeli troops before yesterday’s election. The arrests are part of Israel’s week-long campaign against militants, triggered by rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli border towns.

Armed groups have threatened revenge, and an informal seven-month-old truce could collapse as a result of the escalation.

In Gaza, Islamic Jihad led a children’s demonstration in which arms were conspicuously absent.

Militant groups often hold military-style parades and demonstrations, in which gunmen flaunt their assault rifles and fire in the air while children carry toy guns.

Last week, the militant groups agreed to refrain from displaying their weapons in public, and police started enforcing the ban yesterday. “Islamic Jihad decided not to hold any armed parades and only to hold popular parades without arms,” said Khaled Batsh, the group’s spokesman.

Pressing forward with its military campaign, Israeli soldiers raided the Balata refugee camp outside the West Bank city of Nablus early today, searching for wanted Palestinians, the army said.

Gunmen shot at the soldiers, who returned fired, the army said.

Two Palestinians were killed and another seriously injured, according to witnesses and Palestinian officials. The gunmen were from the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militant group with ties to Abbas’ Fatah movement.

In the West Bank city of Nablus, hospital officials said 13-year-old Said Tantawi was shot dead during a clash in the city’s Askar refugee camp. Israeli military officials said a routine patrol in the camp came under fire and troops shot back. They had no further details.

Local elections were held yesterday in 104 West Bank towns and a villages. It was the third of four rounds of municipal elections. The final round is tentatively set for December 8, with voting to be held in the largest Palestinian cities.

The Local Elections Commission said final results showed Fatah with 54% and Hamas with 26%. In the previous rounds, Hamas won 30% or more, and took control of some of the largest towns in the Palestinian territories, including Rafah, Beit Lahiya and Qalqiliyah.

Many had predicted a poor showing for Fatah, the ruling party for more than a decade. Its popularity has been waning because of widespread corruption, and many thought Hamas would get the “sympathy vote” amid the Israeli offensive.

Yet Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki recently told The Associated Press that Fatah has begun to reverse its popularity fall following Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, with many Palestinians preferring a return to diplomacy.

In local elections, Hamas’ support is largely based on Palestinians’ longing for clean government. Hamas’ violent ideology has not been a major issue.

Results in local elections are not necessarily a clear reflection of the respective strengths of political parties, since many voters choose candidates according to clan membership, not party affiliation. The biggest contest between Hamas and Fatah will come in parliament elections in January.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, of Fatah, said yesterday’s vote would not necessarily predict the outcome of the parliament election. “The issue of January elections cannot be isolated from the results today, but we can’t say it will be an exact copy,” he said.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said he did not trust the accuracy of preliminary results issued by the election commission, and that Hamas would soon publish its own count. In previous rounds of municipal voting, Hamas and Fatah released different figures, in part by each claiming independent lists as affiliates.

Abu Zuhri also said Hamas suffered as a result of the recent Israeli arrest campaign in which more than 400 Palestinians, the bulk Hamas supporters, were rounded up this week.

The Israeli offensive raised pressure on Abbas to act against militant groups and armed gangs, which operate openly in Gaza. Israel says there can be no peace talks until the groups are disarmed.

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