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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 January 2006, 12:33 GMT
Palestinian vote promises change

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East Editor, Jerusalem

Palestinians want a change. There is not much about their lives that is changeable - after all, they have lived under an Israeli military occupation since 1967 - but 10 years after they first elected a legislature they are voting again, and all the signs are that they want their votes to count.

In 1996 Fatah, the faction at the heart of the PLO that was created and led by Yasser Arafat, won an overwhelming victory in the first elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Hamas supporters campaign by bicycle

The difference then was that Hamas, the Islamist movement, did not stand. This time it is contesting the elections, and opinion polls put it neck and neck with Fatah.

The elections 10 years ago were one of the first fruits of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians that started with secret talks in Oslo in 1993 and collapsed into violence and mutual recrimination in 2000.

By then Palestinians and Israelis who had hoped it might change their lives were deeply disillusioned - and those who said it was flawed all along simply had their views confirmed.

Oslo's legacy

But by the time the polls close on Wednesday, politics, not just in the occupied territories but across the Middle East will have changed profoundly.

Hamas, the movement that refused to accept the PLO's recognition of Israel, that condemned the peace process as treachery, will have bought into part of Oslo's legacy.

The main reasons why Palestinians want to vote for Hamas lie in the failure over the last 10 years of Fatah to create efficient, honest and strong government

Every Palestinian accepts that constructing a state while under occupation and sometimes direct attack from Israel was impossible.

But the popularity of Hamas in the opinion polls shows clearly that Palestinian voters also believe that Fatah's leaders could have done more, despite all the difficulties. For them, the occupation is not an excuse.

The Legislative Council should have been allowed to flourish. Instead, it was ignored. It was supposed to have been one of the key building blocks of a Palestinian state-in-waiting; if Palestinians are eventually to have a state, it still must be.

Fatah failures

Part of the reason why Hamas is popular is what Palestinians call the "armed struggle" against Israel.

Map

But the main reasons why they want to vote for it lie in the failure over the last 10 years of Fatah - and that includes Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas - to create efficient, honest and strong government.

Years of corruption have been made even worse by the increasing lawlessness on the streets of Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

Hamas is seen as honest and efficient. Palestinians who once believed that supporting Fatah was a national duty are in the mood to teach it a lesson.

Changing Hamas

Assuming that Hamas does as well as the polls predict, electoral success will not change it overnight.

Its founding charter still calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, though that is not in its manifesto.

If Palestinians vote in numbers for Hamas, it will have a new, stronger, different kind of legitimacy. It will be harder than ever to ignore

Many of its election posters glorify the suicide bombers it has sent to kill Israeli civilians and it says it will not be laying down its guns.

But by taking part in elections Hamas has embarked on a major new strategy. On Monday this week its senior leader Mahmoud al-Zahar even said that negotiations with Israel, through a third party, might be possible.

The entry of Hamas in democratic politics creates many new questions in a region that was already full of them.

Some secular Palestinians - and Christians - are nervous about its Islamist agenda. Israelis will have to decide whether they want to talk to the Palestinian Authority if it includes an organisation that has killed hundreds of its civilians.

A strong showing by Hamas could push Israelis to the right when they vote in their general election in March.

The US and the European Union have both condemned Hamas as a terrorist group. They will need to respond if Hamas leaders join a Palestinian cabinet.

If Palestinians vote in numbers for Hamas, it will have a new, stronger, different kind of legitimacy. It will be harder than ever to ignore.

Challenges and dangers always lie ahead in the Middle East. But there could be some new opportunities as well.


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