Mahmoud Zahar is a relatively well-off thyroid surgeon who wears his thinning gray hair in a comb-over that shakes loose when he is angry, which is often. On his forehead is the dime-size bruise of a devout Muslim, the result of many hours spent praying in the mosque across the dirt street from his house here.
He is also among the most obdurate leaders of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, and will almost certainly be among those who emerge victorious as Palestinians vote Wednesday for parliament for the first time in a decade. Often described by those who know him as severe and short-tempered, Zahar is ebullient as the movement makes its first bid for power in the Palestinian Legislative Council.
"We are feeling victory," Zahar, 60, said during an interview earlier this week in the sunny courtyard of his home. "The people are going to vote for the project of the resistance. Israel should know that a new political and moral atmosphere is going to appear."
Hamas is projected to win roughly a third of the new parliament's 132 seats and bring the Islamic movement inside the Palestinian government. Hamas, a party at war with Israel, refused to participate in earlier elections and rejected the 1993 Oslo peace accords that led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority. Now, Hamas may be taking new risks by joining a weak and nearly bankrupt Palestinian government it has scolded from the outside for years.
Already Hamas leaders are facing questions about how they will manage future peace negotiations with Israel, win the freedom of thousands of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, and ease the occupation in the West Bank given their vow not to recognize Israel or talk to its leaders.
At the same time, many Hamas followers who favored the group's past attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians over the Palestinian Authority's cooperation with Israel are wondering why the movement is going mainstream while the occupation endures in the West Bank.
Each week in the courtyard of the Red Cross here, a group of women gather to demand the release of the estimated 7,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Most of the women are poor, desperate residents of the Jabalya refugee camp. They are veiled, clutching framed photos of their sons. They are the natural constituency of Hamas. Yet none said they intend to support Hamas now. "If they wanted to help, they would be here protesting with us," said Ghaliah Barood, 70, who leads the weekly demonstration. "But you can see that none of them are."
Clean counterweight to Fatah?
Although Hamas officials vow not to meet with Israeli officials, Zahar said he favors mediation through Egypt, Jordan or the European Union to win the prisoners' release, perhaps the most emotional issue in Palestinian politics. Barood, whose son Ibrahim has been in an Israeli jail for two decades, said only kidnapping Israeli soldiers would win the prisoners' release. "We've never seen anyone pay attention to us, and now they only come for our vote," said Aziza Abu Dabah, 55, whose son has been in jail for 11 years.
Though designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Europe and Israel, Hamas has positioned itself among Palestinians as the clean counterweight to the corrupt, ineffective rule of Fatah, the movement that governs the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has a military wing that has carried out deadly attacks on Israelis, but its popularity stems largely from the grass-roots charity work and political organizing that is the hallmark of Islamic movements throughout the Arab world.
Here in the Gaza Strip banners festoon the streets bearing the "Change and Reform" label alongside a green crescent moon, the Hamas trademark. In some places, the signs bear the faces of Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, Hamas leaders in Gaza whom Israel assassinated in 2004.
In the final week of the campaign, Hamas has been broadcasting television ads featuring the party's top national candidate, Ismail Haniyeh, explaining why it is joining the government. Haniyeh, who favored participating in the first parliamentary elections a decade ago, says Hamas will be better able to confront corruption, free Palestinian prisoners and fight the Israeli occupation from inside the system.
Zahar, who lost a son in a 2003 Israeli airstrike that also broke his back and badly injured his wife, said Hamas will not abandon its goal of establishing a Palestinian state across a territory that includes what is now Israel. He argued that Hamas is not joining the existing Palestinian Authority so much as creating a new government through its presence.
"This is to assure people they have not shifted," said Nashat Aqtash, a professor of media studies at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank who is designing the Hamas advertising strategy, though he is not a party member. "They are moving in one direction -- fighting corruption and the occupation -- and that has not changed."
He added with a laugh, "I'm just afraid they'll win more than 50 percent of the vote, and then they'll be in real trouble."
Hamas showed well in a number of municipal races last year, especially in urban areas where its message of war with Israel and its charity networks have broad appeal in the refugee camps. But Hamas may find criticizing the Palestinian government far easier than governing an increasingly frustrated electorate. Leaders of Fatah, a secular movement, say a coalition government with Hamas will likely be impossible given their vastly different views on relations with Israel, the role of Islam in political life, and the future of party-affiliated militias now roaming the Palestinian territories.
"The issue is not who will win in the elections, but the power-sharing and political partnership that must follow," said Ziad Abu Amr, a longtime broker between the Palestinian factions, who is running as an independent candidate from the Gaza City district with the public support of Hamas.
Abu Amr said a "national accord" will have to be reached in parliament outlining a political consensus on the most pressing issues -- peace talks with Israel, continuation of the temporary cease-fire, disarmament of the militias, and reforms in a bureaucracy staffed almost entirely by Fatah members. He said Israel's elections in March and the aftermath will give the new Palestinian parliament time to focus first on internal matters.
"We'll have a breathing space of about six months, and we'll need that time to organize ourselves," he said. "The fact is there is no alternative to real partnership, and the two parties will be Fatah and Hamas."
Polls show that roughly 30 percent of the Palestinian electorate remains undecided, and in the final week, Fatah and Hamas leaders have been casting their rivals as the more dangerous option.
Abdullah Frangi, head of Fatah's campaign here, said of Hamas: "They are pragmatic and they say they will not try to destroy Israel. But it is not working. It would be very hard on the Palestinians if Hamas became the government, and this is the message we are telling people now."
Zahar, dressed in a khaki suit and stylish silk tie, is among the sternest personalities in a movement whose members celebrate the grim culture of suicide attacks and hope to establish Islamic law in the Palestinian territories.
Zahar said Hamas would not give up its military wing after joining the government, which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said would be required. Zahar also warned that the cease-fire with Israel that Abbas brokered with armed Palestinian factions last year was no longer operative, saying, "We are outside the calm, but it is in our hands."
"The Palestinian Authority has failed to achieve even the most basic demand: a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital," Zahar said. "The people know it is time for the party with clean hands to take over."
‘Israel must take a chance ...’
But Hamas has already dealt with Israeli officials in its capacity running municipal councils. In the West Bank town of Qalqilyah, Hashem Masri, the Hamas mayor, acknowledged recently that he has sought permission from the Israeli military to build an industrial park he hopes will create hundreds of jobs. Whether that contact will continue at the national level is uncertain, but some former Israeli security officials see the elections as an opportunity.
"Israel must take a chance with Hamas inside the system," said Shalom Harari, a retired senior Israeli military intelligence officer now with the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. "We're already faced with a failing peace process that had them on the outside. Israel has nothing to lose. They are already here. Let's try to tame them."