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Voter Discontent Boosts Hamas

Many Palestinians blame the ruling Fatah party for violence, graft and other ills. They may be casting ballots for the radical Islamic group.

January 23, 2006|Ken Ellingwood and Laura King | Times Staff Writers

SHATI REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip — Arafa Ayyash wears a pained expression as he recounts how his expectations soared when Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority a year ago.

"We had hope that he would bring peace and stability, and that borders would open and we would have better business," said Ayyash, 55, who fixes and resells automotive parts in a shop no bigger than some walk-in closets. "But none of that happened."

Instead, Ayyash and other impoverished residents of this ramshackle camp on the edge of Gaza City have watched prices for propane and other household essentials rise, and some of those lucky enough to have jobs say earnings have fallen further as the Palestinian economy struggles to recover after more than five years of conflict with Israel.

Rubbing leathery hands on his grease-stained shop coat, Ayyash said his income had dropped to about $7 a day because residents with empty pockets have put off car repairs. Meanwhile, the gunmen who run amok in the streets of Gaza have so rattled residents that Ayyash prefers to keep two grown sons in the workshop as a way of protecting them.

But the shopkeeper has a plan for avenging his dashed hopes: He will vote for the radical Islamic group Hamas in Wednesday's election. In doing so, Ayyash will be joining many Palestinian voters who seek to punish the ruling Fatah party for what they see as its failures during the last year, and to unleash their pent-up anger over its longtime mismanagement and graft.

The parliamentary election, the first since 1996, is shaping up as a chance for Palestinians to take stock of their lives, dreams and prospects in the wake of Yasser Arafat's death in 2004 and Israel's historic pullout from Gaza and parts of the West Bank last summer.

Fatah, the movement once led by Arafat, could still capture the larger share of 132 legislative seats being contested, but it is facing its first serious challenge to its role atop Palestinian politics. Hamas, forecast to capture about one-third of the vote, is capitalizing on widespread disenchantment over Fatah's single-party rule and a growing sense that previous formulas for making peace with Israel have proved fruitless.

Many Palestinians say they understand that a strong showing by Hamas, an armed militant group whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, may further inflame tensions with the Jewish state. But some of these same voters contend that a ballot cast for Hamas is a means of seeking calmer circumstances rather than an endorsement of a return to violence. Hamas, in an apparent attempt to widen its appeal, doesn't mention the destruction of Israel in its election platform.

Even though the vote will fill a parliament that traditionally has been largely powerless, it will serve as a referendum on Abbas' leadership. It is also expected to reflect how Palestinians view the likelihood that Israel will loosen restrictions that shape their daily lives.


From the northern reaches of the West Bank to the scrubby flatlands of the Gaza Strip, a sense of restiveness and disappointment courses through Palestinian cities, towns and refugee camps. Unemployment remains high, the result of a stagnant economy and continued closures by the Israeli military. The chaos in the streets of Gaza and in West Bank cities such as Nablus, much of it caused by members of militias linked to Fatah, has produced the impression that the Palestinian Authority cannot keep law and order.

Although violent confrontations with Israelis have ebbed, shootouts between rival Palestinian factions or between clans have become almost routine in the Gaza Strip. During a flare-up between feuding families, a man was shot dead in Gaza City in broad daylight on the same day that the shopkeeper Ayyash was interviewed.

Gunmen have even brazenly stormed government buildings in the middle of the day to demand jobs on the police force. One Fatah-linked group used a tractor to topple a portion of the concrete border wall between Gaza and Egypt to protest the arrest of one of its members on charges of kidnapping a British woman and her parents. More than a dozen foreigners have been kidnapped in recent months, usually as part of a group's demands for employment; all the abductees have been released unharmed.

The wave of violence produced a staggering finding by a Palestinian human rights group last year: Palestinians killed by gunfire were more likely to have died at the hands of their own people than of Israelis.

Meanwhile, the central aspiration of most ordinary Palestinians -- peace, or some approximation of the normal life that should accompany it -- appears a distant notion.

"We can only pray to God for help," said Izzat Sheik Khalil, sitting on the front steps of his cramped cinder-block house in the Shati refugee camp.

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