Hamas supporters on Friday celebrated a landslide election victory in major West Bank towns, the strongest sign yet of the Islamic militant group’s growing political appeal ahead of Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.
Israel responded with concern, saying a Palestinian government dominated by Hamas — which calls for Israel’s destruction and has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks — would not be a partner for peace.
The results stunned officials from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Party, whose internal disarray developed into a split this week when a group of young-guard leaders broke away.
Fatah official: 'The earth shook under our feet'
Thousands of Hamas supporters joined victory marches after Friday prayers. In Jenin, where Hamas won a majority of local council seats, marchers chanted, “To Jerusalem we march, martyrs by the millions!” and held up copies of the Quran.
“We didn’t think for a moment that Hamas would win so many votes,” said Issam Abu Baker, Fatah’s chief in the Nablus region. “The earth shook under our feet, and this will have an effect on the parliament.”
Hamas’ welfare programs — coupled with its fierce resistance to Israel’s occupation — have won it grass-roots support among Palestinians fed up with Fatah’s corruption and inability to rein in lawlessness.
“We didn’t expect we would get that many votes,” said Adli Yaish, a local businessman who headed the Hamas list in Nablus and is expected to be the new mayor. “The Palestinian people want change.”
Victory for Hamas in the parliamentary election could torpedo efforts to renew long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and could damage the Palestinian relationship with the United States. Hamas — responsible for dozens of suicide bombings — is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
“If the Hamas was ever to become a dominant force in Palestinian politics, that would be the end of the peace process,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.
Focus on local issues
Yasser Mansour, Hamas’ spokesman for the northern West Bank, said the group was willing to talk to Israel, at least about local issues.
“We are open to Europe and the Arab world, and we have no problem sitting with the Israelis to discuss municipal affairs,” he said.
However, some Palestinians said they were wary of putting the Islamic group in charge of the Palestinian Authority.
Hassan Mubarakeh, a 33-year-old vendor in Nablus, said he voted for Hamas in the local election “because I believe it has clean hands and can do something in Nablus.”
However, he ruled out voting for Hamas for parliament “because they mix religion with politics,” he said.
Also Friday, Palestinian militants fired on an Israeli car near the West Bank city of Hebron, killing a resident of a local Jewish settlement. Militant groups linked to Fatah and Islamic Jihad claimed joint responsibility
Israel said the Palestinian Authority is not doing enough to stop extremists and linked the attack to the elections.
“It is totally unacceptable and intolerable that when they have elections in the Palestinian Authority, we will have to pay the price in casualties because of the competition between various groups,” said Raanan Gissin, adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The Israeli military late Thursday imposed a closure barring all Palestinians from entering Israel after troops discovered and detonated a car bomb near the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
Is Fatah a ‘sinking ship’?
Meanwhile, Abbas’ last-minute attempt to unify his ranks failed when a group of popular younger leaders formed a new party Thursday called “Future,” led by jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti.
Abbas threatened to resign if Fatah fails to unite, according to participants in a party meeting Thursday. In his earlier days as deputy for the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Abbas walked away in a huff several times, only to return.
Hamas’ landslide victory is a direct result of Fatah’s internal struggle, said Hani Masri, a Palestinian political commentator for the daily newspaper Al-Ayyam.
“Fatah today is a sinking ship,” he said. “Everyone is trying to jump ship and this will open the way for Hamas to win the upcoming election.”
In Nablus, Hamas won 73 percent of the vote and 13 seats on the 15-member council. The two remaining seats went to a coalition of Fatah and independent candidates.
In nearby Jenin, Hamas won eight seats, according to unofficial results, while a coalition of Fatah and the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine garnered seven.
Municipal voting in Hebron, the West Bank’s largest town, was postponed until after the legislative elections.