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Palestine: Moderates Narrowly Defeat Militants In Local Elections

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas is concerned Hamas can set back his peace efforts with Israel The ruling Fatah party has survived a strong challenge from the Islamic militant group Hamas in Palestinian local polls. Unofficial final results show President Mahmud Abbas's Fatah winning some 56 percent of yesterday's vote. But the popular Hamas, the driving force behind anti-Israeli suicide bombings, won about 33 percent to establish itself as a major player ahead of parliamentary polls this summer.

Prague, 6 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The corruption-tainted Fatah movement had feared defeat, but results indicate the party won in an estimated 52 of 84 communities.

However, the big news is that Hamas has officially shown itself to be a major political force, winning control of an estimated 28 city councils, including the three biggest towns -- Qalqiliya, Rafah, and Beit Lahiya.

Mahmud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza, told a news conference in Gaza City on Friday that the militant group is looking to July's vital Palestinian parliamentary elections with confidence.
The local elections are seen as the final test for Abbas before the parliamentary elections, when Hamas candidates will run for the first time.

"Hamas is enjoying massive support from the popular level and others in the Arabic and Islamic world as a liberating movement, as representing true Islam, as representing the style and regime of reforming and reconciliation. So we are not afraid of any result," al-Zahar said.

There is still some uncertainty about the results, which are set to be officially announced on Sunday.

In the remaining communities, neither side won a clear majority, with independents or smaller factions getting the most votes. And both Hamas and Fatah are disputing some results.

Hamas says it actually won in 34 communities, with its candidates in some towns running as independents for fear they would be targeted by Israel.

"Because of the bad security situation," al-Zahar said, "many of the Palestinian [candidates] from this faction and that, especially from Hamas, described themselves as independent in order to bypass the security aggression against them."

The local elections are seen as the final test for moderate President Mahmud Abbas before the parliamentary elections, in which Hamas candidates will run for the first time.

Abbas has been seeking to persuade Hamas to give up violence and transform itself into a political party. He is concerned that the increasingly powerful militant group can set back his peace efforts with Israel.

Unlike Fatah, which seeks a two-state solution and peace talks, Hamas is pledged to Israel's destruction and opposes negotiations with the Jewish state.

More than 400,000 Palestinians were eligible to vote. Turnout reached 80 percent in Gaza and 70 percent in the West Bank.

In a sign of the militants' strength, even in areas with large Arab Christian populations, Hamas won five of the seven seats allotted to Muslims in the town of Bethlehem, which has a total of 15 seats.

With the late Yasser Arafat out of the picture, Hamas is capitalizing on a new openness among Palestinians, who are now criticizing the Fatah party Arafat headed for corruption, nepotism, and inefficiency.

Abbas, Arafat's successor, could pay the price, despite efforts to clean up the government and its security forces.

Hamas has broad support, having for years run welfare programs for the poor. Many see the militant group as poised to take advantage of voter disaffection with Fatah.