Hamas Scores Big in Gaza Vote, Prompting Questions over Its Role

Hamas’ landslide victory in the first-ever municipal elections in the Gaza Strip is seen as a bad omen for Israel, the United States and the Palestinians’ ruling Fatah movement — but some say it may tie the terrorist group down by making it more responsible for Palestinian decision-making. Israel kept a low profile in its reactions to last week’s vote, but U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stressed that the U.S. still regards Hamas as a terrorist organization, despite its electoral gains.

In any case, the results must be kept in context: These were only local elections, and for less than half of the municipal councils in the Gaza Strip. Large population centers such as Khan Younis, Rafah and Gaza City did not vote this time.

But the elections could be an opportunity for the militant Islamic movement to reinvent itself as a political party sharing power and responsibility with the newly elected Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

The formula is simple: The more formal responsibility Hamas has, the bigger its moral obligation to Palestinian society. A strong, post-election Hamas has more to lose.

“You can’t take part in decision-making and at the same time continue terrorist activity,” said Ra’anan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Labor Party legislator Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister, told Israel Radio that the Gaza voting results showed the need to work with Abbas’ government to coordinate Israel’s withdrawal from the strip, planned for this summer.

Some detect a softening of Hamas rhetoric. Both the movement’s Gaza leader, Ismail Haniyeh, and its West Bank leader, Hassan Yousef, made statements — even before the elections — indicating that they may now change their tactics.

“If there is total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza,” Haniyye said, “the Hamas movement will be ready to halt its military action because it is important for us to put an end to the misery of our people.”

However, some cautioned that Israelis desperate to find signs of moderation from an enemy dedicated to Israel’s destruction were seeing signs of moderation were there were none. On Sunday, Hamas and Hezbollah reiterated their support for the notion of violent “resistance” against Israel.

Hamas’ victory in Gaza was indeed impressive, surprising even the winners and stunning the losers, Abbas’ Fatah.

Hamas now controls seven out of the 10 councils in which elections were held last week. The final tally gave Hamas 77 council seats to 26 won by Fatah-affiliated candidates. Another 11 posts went to independents thought to be Fatah supporters. Other independent candidates shared the remaining four seats.

Thousands took to the streets of Gaza to celebrate the victory, waving green Hamas flags, distributing candy and chanting, “Hamas is the real way for reform and rebuilding.”

“Our people have a consensus on the choice of jihad,” or holy war, “and resistance, and the election has underscored that concept,” Hamas spokesman Muhir Al-Masri told reporters.

However, in reality the situation is more complex. Palestinian society is undergoing dual processes: Abbas largely enjoys a national consensus in his attempts to calm the situation, but the majority of Gaza voters still vow allegiance to Hamas, particularly on the municipal level.

The vote was a combination of protest against the Palestinian political establishment, run by Fatah, and a debt of honor to Hamas for developing an effective network of social services, including schools and health and welfare services in Gaza.

“This is a victory of the Palestinian people and a victory to the resistance against the occupation and to the demand to introduce reforms in the Palestinian Authority,” said another Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar. He said the Hamas-controlled municipalities would seek to switch power and water supply from Israel to “Arab sources,” most likely Egypt.

Most notable was the victory in Beit Hanoun, the northern town that has Hamas has turned into a launching pad for Kassam rockets into Israel, and which has borne the brunt of Israel’s retaliatory raids.

Hamas’ victory in Gaza followed an earlier victory late last year in municipal elections in the West Bank. Though Hamas is weaker in the West Bank than in Gaza but still won a third of the municipal councils there, including in a number of traditional Fatah strongholds.

The Islamists boycotted the P.A.’s Jan. 9 presidential election, which Abbas won on a platform of stopping violence and renewing dialogue with Israel.

Hamas has not yet decided whether to take part in parliamentary elections scheduled for July. But Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said the municipal victory would increase the pressure to contest parliamentary elections.

The bottom line is that Fatah will need to work hard to maintain a comfortable majority in the Palestine Legislative Council.

Fatah’s shock over the election results led some senior PLO officials to suggest postponing the parliamentary elections. But it may be too late: The taste of victory has increased Hamas’ political appetite.

Hamas is demanding a greater voice in Palestinian decision-making, particularly regarding any concessions to Israel. The organization even is considering joining the PLO umbrella group, Yussuf said.

“Everybody won, those who were elected and those who were not, because the exercise of this process is more important than the winners,” Zahar said at a press conference in Gaza City.

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