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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 January 2006, 08:22 GMT
On the campaign trail with Hamas
By James Reynolds
BBC News, Jerusalem

Mona Mansour drives round Nablus in an old white car, without any bodyguards.

A young Palestinian boy looks at a picture of former Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
Hamas hope to turn their popular support into electoral success

She's well-known in the city as the widow of a famous Hamas gunman, killed by Israel.

Now she has found a way to carry on his fight - by running for parliament for Hamas.

"Nablus has been forgotten. The Palestinian people need us," she tells a small crowd of supporters. "Conditions are terrible. There's corruption and nepotism. There's no security."

The Hamas election platform is clear: pro-religion, anti-corruption, anti-Israel.

The movement has been gathering support on these issues for many years.

Every country has its army and our resistance movement is our army fighting for the cause of our people
Hamas candidate Aziz Dwaik
But for a long time it decided to boycott all Palestinian elections - wanting nothing to do with democratic institutions set up in agreement with Israel.

Now, though, Hamas has decided that it's time to convert its long-standing popular support into seats in the Palestinian parliament. How will the movement fare?

Current opinion polls suggest that it will pick up more than 30% of the vote.

Pressing the flesh

In the old city of Nablus, after mid-day prayers, Hamas candidates go looking for support.

They walk slowly through the market, shaking as many hands as they can.

The candidates are courtly, neat, and determined. Each wears a Hamas banner round his jacket.

None carries a gun. Hamas has taken a clear decision - its young gunmen will do the fighting. Its older, educated class will run for office.

One voter approaches a Hamas candidate.

"You should negotiate with Israel," the man says.

"Why?" the Hamas candidate replies. "We need to win our rights by force."

Bullets and ballots

In the city of Hebron, the movement has just opened a museum of Hamas history.

It is made up of several rooms, putting together the most memorable moments of the organisation's 18-year campaign.

There is a model showing rockets being fired towards Jewish settlements.

There are dozens of pictures celebrating Hamas gunmen and suicide bombers.

One picture even mocks up a Hamas version of Mount Rushmore - with the faces of Hamas leaders replacing the faces of US presidents.

The museum also displays posters of the Hamas candidates running for election.

Poster on display at the Hamas museum
The museum glorifies Hamas leaders killed by Israel
"How can you be a democratic party on the one hand and an armed militia on the other hand. Surely it doesn't mix ?" I ask Dr Aziz Salem Dwaik, who is one of the Hamas candidates in Hebron.

"It mixes all over the world because each and every country has its army and our resistance movement is our army fighting for the cause of our people."

"Will you negotiate with Israel if Hamas gets power in the election?"

"This is a choice that we will take into consideration whenever we feel that the Israelis are accepting our rights and admitting that we have rights in Jerusalem, we have rights all over the area where the Israelis built settlements and built the Israeli annexation and confiscation wall."

Democratic mandate

Dr Dwaik's words leave some room for manoeuvre. He doesn't take the opportunity to repeat the call for Israel's destruction, enshrined in the movement's 1988 charter.

Instead, Hamas leaders suggest and hint that they may be prepared for some kind of accommodation with Israel - leaving a final struggle to future generations.

In return, Israel appears to be making a bit of room for itself as well.

For years government officials have condemned Hamas at all times - refusing to accept any kind of separation between the movement's political and armed wings.

But now, it is faced with the prospect of Hamas with a democratic mandate. So it has to choose its words carefully.

"Can Israel ever deal with Hamas?" I ask Israeli cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit.

"If they change their agenda formally, making action, to say we are cancelling those items on the agenda that are talking about exterminating the state of Israel and joining the route of the road map to make peace with Israel, I cannot avoid the possibility of talking to them - especially if they have been elected," he answers.

There is a wider point as well. For several years now, US President George W Bush, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and others have called for more democracy in the Middle East, and among Palestinians in particular.

The hope being that democracy leads to freedom, stability, and prosperity. But here's a key point for them to consider.

If they want democracy from Palestinian streets, they may just end up with a party like Hamas.

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