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Hamas Shows a New Face in Campaign

January 24, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

GAZA CITY — The masked fighters, with their weatherworn Kalashnikovs, didn't appear at this Hamas rally. No effigies were torched. And the climax wasn't a fiery call for Israel's destruction, but a lighthearted skit about how to vote.

The militant Islamic group displayed the keen organization and grass-roots appeal that have made it a surprisingly formidable contender in its first run in a Palestinian parliamentary election.

One speaker made sure to call out the name of each of the area's residents imprisoned by Israel. A group of boys paraded about carrying the green Hamas flag and a giant number 6 -- the ballot designation of the Hamas slate -- as a recorded song blared, "We want to work for Hamas 24 hours!"

"Ha-ah-MAS!" roared the crowd of about 500 men and boys seated on tidy rows of plastic chairs on the mud-caked street.

The group best known for its military wing's suicide bombings and other attacks against Israelis has emerged as the strongest challenger to the dominant Fatah movement once run by Yasser Arafat. Hamas is expected to capture a significant share of the parliament's 132 seats, if not win outright, in Wednesday's vote.

Israel has said it will not negotiate with Hamas, and the U.S. Congress and European Union officials have threatened to withhold funding for the Palestinians if Hamas joins the government without disavowing violence. The United States classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization and refuses to have dealings with the group.

The electoral venture marks a new stage for Hamas, which has won the loyalty of many Palestinians through its network of charities and schools, its militant stance toward Israel and a reputation of relative honesty that contrasts sharply with Fatah's corruption-tainted record.

Hamas was founded in December 1987, at the beginning of the first Palestinian uprising, by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, whom Israel assassinated in 2004. The group refused to take part in past Palestinian elections but is now seeking a public endorsement, while remaining vague about specific policies it would pursue if it wins.

Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza City, said Hamas' goal could be summed up in one word: legitimacy.

"Hamas needs that legitimacy by its own people. The way is through the ballot box," Sourani said. "Ultimately, any democrat knows that if you are elected, then you are legitimate."

In search of votes, Hamas has tempered some of its rhetoric, even though leaders say they have no plans to disarm or to recognize Israel after the elections. The group has been noncommittal about whether it would helm government ministries -- in effect, joining the Palestinian Authority after years of rejecting it as an outgrowth of unacceptable peace agreements with Israel.

Hamas leaders say they want to improve relations with foreign governments, including the United States. Some moderates in the group have suggested that Hamas might one day negotiate with Israel, a possibility raised again Monday by senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, who said talks could be held through a third party.

In seeking to hold legislative seats and weapons at the same time, Hamas could come to resemble Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that has a parliamentary presence and a militia along the border with Israel. But many analysts say that by joining mainstream Palestinian politics, Hamas is bound to moderate its views, and already has to some degree.

Hamas operates with strict discipline, and its fighters have largely adhered to a nearly yearlong cease-fire with Israel.

Despite its relative inexperience, the group has also proved politically canny and pragmatic. Its campaign manifesto does not talk of destroying Israel, as its founding charter does, and calls by some of its leaders for creating a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital sound a lot like Fatah's stance.

Although Hamas supports establishing an Islamic state, candidates have avoided taking stands on cultural and moral issues, such as banning alcohol, that might alienate secular Palestinian voters already wary of the group.

Hamas may give voters a way to vent anger over years of mismanagement and graft under Fatah, which has run the government since the Palestinian Authority's creation in 1994.

"People are really, really happy that there is going to be a strong opposition," said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian commentator who directs the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "People think and feel that Hamas will keep Fatah a bit more honest and accountable than they were before."

The Hamas slate is called "Change and Reform." Its candidates ran under the same name during municipal elections last year that put Hamas in control of some of the largest Palestinian communities, often in alliance with independents and Christians.

In those elections and in the current campaign, Hamas has chosen candidates from a variety of backgrounds -- business executives, professors, physicians and engineers -- who are well regarded in their communities. Its national slate of 59 candidates includes 13 women.

Hamas recently launched a TV station in the Gaza Strip that has provided a showcase for the group's candidates in time for the election. But a longer-term goal for the station is to improve the group's image, activists say.

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