Cover Story

The people have spoken

In democratic elections, two lefts don't make a right

Reigning in terrorists

Palestinian voters hand Hamas a clear majority

In the first parliamentary election in a decade, Palestinians went to the polls on Jan. 25 knowing that the outcome would likely integrate Islamic militants into Palestinian politics for the first time. The Fatah party dominated prior elections, but this time around Hamas was ascending into popularity while Fatah was battling corruption and lawlessness. Fatah's already-tainted image worsened the day before the election when Fatah gunmen shot and killed 44-year-old Abu Ahmen Hassouna, a Fatah candidate in the election. Relatives of the victim said he was shot after scolding the gunmen for firing at campaign posters plastered on his house.

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Despite differences and a hot campaign, no one predicted just how dominant Hamas would be. Jailed intifada leader Marwan Barghouti, a newly elected parliament member from the Fatah party, said, "Hamas will be part and parcel of the Palestinian Authority" after the election. But before the final vote-counting was in, his party had resigned from power, a stunning blow for a movement begun in 1958 with legendary Fatah leader Yasser Arafat. Hamas had won up to 80 seats in the 132-seat parliament-a clean majority for a dirty band of brothers.

Outside the polls not all Palestinians are as accepting of Hamas' new clout. Palestinian Christian Hanan Ashrawi is considered one of the most articulate spokespersons for the Palestinians and was part of the delegation to the Middle East Peace talks from 1991 to 1993. She quit her post as minister of education in 1998 in protest of corruption in Arafat's government. She was recently reelected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and now faces the challenge of working in a government that includes Hamas.

"I will be a very active opposition to Hamas. I am concerned about creating a pluralistic and democratic government with a just peace, not isolating ourselves from the rest of the world," Mrs. Ashrawi told WORLD on the eve of the election. Mrs. Ashrawi's party, The Third Way, is one of two independent parties that support negotiations with Israel.

Palestinian election law requires that six seats in the PLC be reserved for Christians, but some fear Hamas will attempt to marginalize Christians.

Manar Giacaman, a 22-year-old Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem, professes support for both Muslim and Christian candidates but did not plan to vote for any Hamas members. "For me as a Christian, I will not vote for them. Their views of Christians are not what we want."

With 77 percent of 1.3 million registered Palestinian voters casting ballots, a solid majority went for Hamas, whose campaign saturated Gaza and the West Bank with signature green flags, but whose underlying platform was red: "Our blood will be a wall to protect our holy site," one Hamas campaign ad concluded, referring to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Fearing the growing popularity of a group once considered extreme by most Palestinians, Fatah fought back hard with a vivid display of yellow flags, and it invoked the image of Arafat by leading a pilgrimage to his former home.

For observers the outcome was a surprise. Even exit polls Jan. 25 showed the two major contenders neck-and-neck. For world leaders it was a fear realized, that their efforts to promote democratic elections in the Middle East clearly produced an undemocratic party in the majority.

Hamas won the hearts of many Palestinians by promising to fight corruption rampant in the current government, implementing countless social services, and donating millions to health care, housing, and education. Residents of the small town of Beita in the West Bank recently had a taste of the generous side of Hamas when their main street was paved, trash collection was implemented, and construction of a new school commenced-all courtesy of Hamas. With unemployment between 30 percent and 40 percent in the West Bank and Gaza, the services and contributions of Hamas are typically welcome relief.

But terrorists rarely make good democrats, and the other side of Hamas is far less humanitarian. The group regularly takes responsibility for hundreds of suicide bombings in Israel-the most recent killed 16 and wounded 100 in two simultaneous bus bombings in the small desert town of Beersheba in August 2004. The terrorist group has honored the ceasefire implemented a year ago but uses past attacks as an election platform, claiming that its militant operations propelled Israel into its eventual withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer.

Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, says the presence of Hamas in the PLC creates a dilemma for the international community: "If Hamas insists on both being part of the PA and maintaining an active military wing of its own, then the prognosis is not good. It would be terribly wrong for the international community to grant legitimacy to Hamas if it doesn't abandon terrorism."


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