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Last Updated: Friday, 13 May, 2005, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
Hamas success in Fatah heartland
By Matthew Price
BBC News, Qalqilya

Hamas supporters during a night-time rally in Gaza
Hamas are demanding more say in Palestinian decision-making
Palestinians have started registering to vote in their parliamentary election, due to be held in July, when significant gains are predicted for the political wing of the Islamic militant group Hamas.

In local elections last week Hamas took over one third of the municipal councils, wresting control of them from the biggest force in Palestinian politics, the secular Fatah party.

When you drive into Qalqilya the first thing you notice are the pro-Hamas slogans - bright red graffiti painted on white walls. One reads: "Strength, honesty, credibility."

The residents of Qalqilya clearly took notice when they voted in the recent Palestinian local elections.

The people who've been in power for the last 11 years brought nothing but problems
Qalqilya mayor Hasham al-Masri
They elected a town council run entirely by Islamic parties, and dominated by Hamas.

On a nearby street corner, sat on plastic chairs, is a group of friends deep in a finger-jabbing political discussion.

Some voted Hamas, others for the secular Fatah party which has dominated Palestinian politics for decades.

One man, Omar who voted Hamas, says he wanted change.

Another, Yousef, tells me he expects support for the Islamic parties will grow because people are losing faith in Fatah.

'Clean alternative'

Across the road is Hasham's pharmacy. Behind the counter is the new mayor of Qalqilya. Hasham al-Masri - neatly turned out in a brown suit, with his white medical cloak over the top.

Mr Masri is delighted with Hamas's showing in the local elections.

"The people elected us for several reasons. They liked our programme. An Islamic programme."

"Also the people who've been in power for the last 11 years brought nothing but problems. People didn't want them anymore."

That may explain why Hamas took more than a third of the municipalities up for grabs in the local elections - including the important major urban centres.

By doing so it showed it has support not just in its Gaza Strip heartland, but also in the more secular West Bank.

This was not just a vote for Islam.

For years Palestinians have been ruled by the secular Fatah party.

The Palestinian Authority - in effect the Palestinian government - is dominated by Fatah members.

Many accuse Fatah of being corrupt, and the party is trying to reform. But Hamas is presenting itself as a clean alternative party.

Peace dividend

Israel will undermine the credibility of the Palestinian Authority and will give credence to Hamas's claims
George Giacaman
Later this year Fatah and Hamas will go head-to-head in parliamentary elections.

Observers like Palestinian political analyst George Giacaman are trying to figure out how Hamas will perform.

"I expect that they will do fairly well, but this need not necessarily mean that they will get a majority. Most likely they won't," he says.

Israel, as you would expect, has expressed its concern at Hamas' success. George Giacaman believes the party's vote in the parliamentary election will be directly related to the success or failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Voter places ballot in ballot box in Qalqilya
Palestinian elections may not yield a result appealing to the West
He says Israel is failing to offer sufficient support to the current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. And Hamas will benefit.

"To the extent that Israel continues to withhold the release of prisoners, to keep the checkpoints and restrictions on movement of Palestinians, and to the extent that the economic situation remains as it is now with a very high level of unemployment..."

"This will undermine the credibility of the Palestinian Authority and will give credence to Hamas's claims about the incompetence of the Palestinian Authority."

Certainly in Qalqilya there is a feeling that perhaps it is time for a change.

International observers have been impressed with the Palestinians' ability to hold democratic elections. Something both the US - and Israel - have been pressing the Palestinians on.

Of course if the Palestinian people do turn to Hamas, the international community may not get the result it would like.

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