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Palestinian Vote Turns on Hamas Challenge

The militant Islamic group, now a political upstart, faces off with long-dominant Fatah in legislative elections. U.S. and Israel are watching.

January 25, 2006|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

GAZA CITY — Palestinians went to the polls today for a parliamentary vote that could alter the course of Middle East peace efforts and give a powerful new political voice to the Islamist group Hamas.

The balloting, representing an unprecedented challenge to the decade-long dominance of the ruling Fatah movement, is being closely watched by Israel and the Bush administration. Both have expressed strong concern about the likelihood that Hamas, best known for its long, bloody campaign of suicide bombings against Israel, will win a significant share of legislative seats.

Among the first to vote was Ibrahim Abu Abdullah, who lined up in the damp morning chill as his polling place, a girls school in Gaza City, was opening.

"We waited years for this day," the 52-year-old laborer said. "We want to show the world we can make a democracy."

Nearly 1.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip were eligible to vote, and turnout was expected to be high. More than 900 international observers, including former President Carter, were on hand to monitor the election, scrutinizing in particular Palestinians' ability to get through Israeli checkpoints and reach polling places.

Amid fears of violence, tens of thousands of Palestinian police fanned out to watch over the balloting. On the eve of the election, gunmen claiming allegiance to an offshoot of Fatah shot and killed a party rival in the volatile West Bank town of Nablus.

Tensions also were high in the Gaza Strip, where armed men have staged dozens of attacks on government buildings and election offices. Small groups of police in camouflage-blue uniforms, toting automatic weapons, patrolled Gaza City's run-down streets.

Seven major Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas, vowed Tuesday to help maintain calm on election day. But the smaller Islamic Jihad refused to join that pledge and pressed ahead with calls to boycott the vote.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, voted into office just over a year ago, has repeatedly promised that security forces would "strike with an iron fist" anyone trying to violently disrupt the vote.

Israel placed its own forces on high alert but ordered troops to keep as low a profile as possible. The military reportedly planned to refrain from arrest raids in Palestinian areas except in the case of "ticking bombs," militants thought to be planning imminent attacks.

However, Israel rounded up more than two dozen suspected militants in the days before the election. Raids continued into the predawn hours Tuesday.

With polls suggesting that Hamas would garner at least one-third of the vote, the Islamist group and its main rival, Fatah, spoke of forming a coalition. But because Hamas' charter calls for the destruction of Israel, any alliance would be fraught with complications.

Today's vote marks Hamas' first time participating in a parliamentary election. The group boycotted the sole previous legislative vote, held in 1996, because of its bitter opposition to the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords, under whose auspices the Palestinian Authority was created.

Although Israel and the United States regard Hamas as first and foremost a terrorist organization, many Palestinians admire the group's charity work and its image of incorruptibility -- the latter a stark contrast to the graft-ridden Palestinian Authority.

"We trust Hamas to do what is right," said 74-year-old Mahmoud Jaabari, who leaned heavily on a cane as he hobbled along a Gaza City street. "Their hands are clean."

Hamas has indicated that even if it were to win more seats than Fatah, it would seek only lower-level Cabinet posts that would involve overseeing social programs, an area in which it has built much of its popularity and prestige.

However, even left-leaning Israeli politicians such as former Prime Minister Shimon Peres say Hamas must disarm and renounce violence before Israel can consider dealing with it.

"Who will sit with people who carry bombs?" Peres asked Tuesday, speaking on Israel Radio. "There can be no bombs in a coalition for negotiations. It is either-or, not both."

Voters are electing 132 lawmakers to serve in the body formally known as the Palestinian Legislative Council. Under the late leader Yasser Arafat, the parliament was largely a rubber-stamp body, but it has grown more assertive in the 14 months since his death.

Half the lawmakers will be picked from the national slates of 11 parties running in the election and the other half from balloting in the districts where the candidates live.

Even before the outcome is known, the election has become a major campaign issue in Israel, which is holding its own general elections March 28. That contest has already been roiled by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's abrupt disappearance from public life when he suffered a catastrophic stroke Jan. 4.

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