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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 January 2005, 22:28 GMT
Hamas explores ballot box power
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Beit Hanoun

Palestinians with the Hamas movement chant Islamic slogans during a rally in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun
Hamas has strong local support, but for how long?
Palestinian militant group Hamas has blasted its way into the centre of the Arab-Israeli conflict over the years.

Hamas' suicide bombers have struck at Israel many times.

But it talks now of a possible ceasefire and there are other signs that Hamas may be changing to a fight of a very different kind.

A column of Hamas cadets gets a big reception as it marches into a rally in northern Gaza.

They are teenagers in combat uniforms, their faces smeared with camouflage paint. And they are on parade for democracy - Hamas-style.

Hamas' involvement in the political arena doesn't mean we will stop the resistance as long as there is an occupation
Said Se'am
Hamas leader

For the first time, Hamas is standing in local elections.

This rally is the climax of the campaign in northern Gaza, and Hamas may well put up candidates for parliament this summer. It is moving into mainstream electoral politics. Here, under the streaming green banners and in the roar of the crowd, Hamas is starting to explore the power of the ballot box.

Reputation

The crowd salutes Hamas men killed by the Israeli Army. Israelis would call them murderers who deserve death.

Hamas suicide bombers have struck again and again in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It has maimed and killed Israeli civilians at every opportunity, and seeks the destruction of their state.

Palestinian Viza Zaaneen (right) a 45-year-old mother of 14 runs as a Hamas candidate in Beit Hanoun, sits along with other male candidates
Hamas puts forward political candidates for the first time

Israel regards Hamas as one of its most deadly terrorist enemies.

But here in Gaza, many see Hamas as having waged a brave fight against decades of Israeli occupation and oppression.

And Hamas knows that such a reputation will draw voters.

"Hamas has a slogan: Partners in blood, partners in decision-making," said Hamas leader, Said Se'am.

"Hamas will participate in the local elections with the people's support behind us, because the movement makes sacrifices for the Palestinian people."

He went on: "We realise that the Palestinian people need Hamas to be involved in the local councils more than ever before.

"The involvement of Hamas in the political arena doesn't mean we will stop the resistance as long as there is an occupation."

Significant move

A speaker at the rally honours a young man who died in the latest big Hamas suicide attack in Gaza.

"He shook the castles of Zionism," the speaker says.

One major factor that might influence Hamas' ratings is whether Abu Mazen succeeds in... giving people new hope
Saleh Abdul Shafi
Political analyst

Hamas does not intend to abandon what it calls its "holy war".

It is not giving up the bomb for the ballot box.

But there is no doubt that this move into the democratic process is significant.

The Palestinian political analyst Saleh Abdul Shafi knows Hamas well.

"This is something very, very significant," he says. "It seems that the rules of the game are changing. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are ready and apparently prepared to be part of the political process, through participation and elections.

"They're going to continue to participate. They will probably participate in parliamentary elections."

So how big a force could they be, and how far could they go through the ballot box?

"One major factor that might influence the ratings of Hamas is whether Abu Mazen, as the new president, will succeed in reforming the Palestinian Authority and giving the people new hope, and regaining credibility and the trust of the people in the Palestinian Authority," says Mr Shafi.

"Second, it depends on the living conditions of the people - whether they're going to improve, in terms of job creation, movement and so on. If these things happen, this will negatively affect Hamas."

Opinion polls suggest that Hamas might have 25% support - more than enough to make an impact.

Democracy is on the rise in this corner of the Arab world, and Hamas may rise with it.


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