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In Umm El-fahm, Islamic Victory Creates Disbelief and Uncertainty

The weary representatives of the various parties, sitting at a conference in the mayor’s office here, kept rechecking their figures, rubbing their eyes, and uttering time and again: “It is unbelievable, just unbelievable.”

Indeed, as election returns poured in from polling stations in Israel’s second largest Arab city, the data seemed unreal.

The victory of the Islamic bloc was sweeping. One ballot after another showed a victory of some 75 percent for the fundamentalists, which would ultimately give them 11 out of 15 seats on the town council.

It is a meteoric rise, out of the blue. The Islamic bloc is a newborn political baby, hardly known in the Israeli political arena until now.

And yet, in a knock-out election campaign, the Moslems managed to put an end to the 14-year rule of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, a front for the Hadash Communist Party.

Umm el-Fahm, whose population numbers 25,000, was not the only Arab locality where the Moslem fundamentalists won a sweeping victory.

They also took over Kafr Kasim, in the central region, and Kafr Kanna, in Galilee. And they became the second strongest party in the partly Christian town of Nazareth.

In short, Moslem power became a new factor in Arab-Israeli politics early Wednesday.

Although not even their most enthusiastic supporters predicted such a victory, euphoria was in the air from the early morning hours Tuesday.

Cars carrying the green flag of Islam traveled all day through the narrow alleys of this crowded Arab town, astride the main road from Hadera to Afula. They would not permit anyone to evade voting.

WINNING VOTES WITH MONEY

As the muezzin called worshipers to noon prayers, it sounded as if he also called them to prepare for the victory celebrations.

Just opposite the town hall, the target of Tuesday’s election, supporters of the small radical Abnaa el-Balad group sat at their headquarters, as if in mourning.

Five youths were chatting with a middle-aged man, almost afraid to confirm that the worst of their fears was about to materialize.

“They are lying to the people, but the people want to believe them,” said one youth, as he cracked sunflower seeds.

“They soak in money,” added the middle-aged man. “With that much money, one can buy anything.”

Indeed, a few yards away stood the living monument to Moslem grandeur: a huge community center, with a mosque on top, now in the process of being built.

It is funded entirely by donations. “Where exactly do they raise this money?” asked another youth.

The new community center, spreading over 1,500 square yards, is the most impressive project of the Islamic bloc, but not the only one.

In the past 10 years, the bloc has provided the local population with cheap medical services, a rich library and huge sums of money for local welfare projects, such as a chain of kindergartens for children under 4.

In fact, hatred of the Communist administration seems to have been a chief motive for the massive support for the Islamic bloc.

After years of frustration with both Labor-led and Communist-led municipalities, the local population finally found an alternative, which had proven itself in local volunteer projects.

WARNING FROM THE GOVERNMENT

But Israeli leaders had a different interpretation. A number of public figures, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert, the minister in charge of minorities, expressed concern over the rise of Moslem fundamentalists.

Olmert issued a statement Wednesday warning Israel’s Arabs not to be caught by the web of Moslem fundamentalists, who are “hated throughout the world.” He warned them they might tip the delicate balance between Jews and Arabs in the country.

The truth is that no one really knows who is behind the movement that took over Umm el-Fahm. It was formed about 10 years ago under the leadership of Sheik Raed Salah Mahajneh, and has since engaged itself industriously in social projects.

The election campaign was effective in its simplicity. The message was: “Islam is the solution.”

Sheik Raed Salah Mahajneh, the leader of the Islamic bloc in Umm el-Fahm, is only 30. He is a graduate of the Islamic College of Hebron and, until now, an unknown figure in Israeli politics.

The authorities and the Moslems are now eyeing each other suspiciously, each not quite certain how the other side might react.

The test case will be March 30, the day when Israel’s Arabs commemorate Land Day, a day of protest against the government’s policy toward Israel’s Arabs. It remains to be seen how Umm el-Fahm will behave on that day under a Moslem leadership.

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