- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

BIDDYA, West Bank — The decision of Hamas to run in Palestinian elections has stoked optimism that the responsibilities of office will mellow Islamic militants.

But it is also stirring concerns that the party plans a religious makeover of Palestinian public institutions.

In early voting returns, Hamas politicians have already captured a clutch of small municipalities like this quiet West Bank village, and the Hamas political wing is poised to claim a large chunk of the Palestinian legislature at the expense of Fatah, the party of President Mahmoud Abbas.

With its network of social charities, Hamas is seen as an alternative to Fatah, which suffers from a reputation for corruption, nepotism and infighting.

But the Hamas gains have raised concerns of rising Islamic influence on daily political and social life.

“The fear that we have here in Palestine is that the rise in Hamas will create such change in Palestinian society, regardless of whether it takes over the Palestinian Authority or not,” Mohammed Abdel Hamid, a Ramallah political analyst, said. “It will create a situation of religious and social conservatism.”

The tensions are already emerging in Biddya, where a Hamas mayor took over after December’s municipal elections.

“Islam is the solution,” reads graffiti on the mosque where 33-year-old Ramadan Shtat once served as imam before the village council elected him mayor.

In his office, no religious paraphernalia are on display save for the hint offered by his green tie and jacket the symbolic color of Islam.

This new brand of Hamas politician pores over road plans with the city engineer and boasts that municipal collections of water and electricity fees have shot up.

But his agenda goes beyond laying new water lines and upgrading Biddya’s electricity grid.

A village community center is being planned, and although Mr. Shtat has only a vague idea of what will go on there beyond an Internet center and a library, he knows exactly how the institution will be run.

“We would like to handle the community center from the Islamic point of view,” he said.

“From an Islamic view, the Internet is not something that is discussed in detail,” Mr. Shtat said. “If it is abused and against Islamic morals, then that has to be stopped.”

Mustafa Da’as, a village councilor who leads the local Fatah faction that was routed in the December vote, said he fears that Hamas will use projects like the cultural center to expand its support, in time building up to capture top political posts.

But some analysts argue that Palestinians have a pluralistic political tradition that will limit Hamas’ influence.

Said Palestinian political analyst Samiah Shahib, “Hamas realizes that any serious closeness to the Palestinian Authority means it will have to deal differently with certain issues.”

In an interview with The Washington Times last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that participation in the democratic process could have a moderating effect on Hamas.

“I don’t mean to underestimate the impact of radical Islamists having a say in the political process, but remember that the political process also has an effect on those who run in it,” Miss Rice said.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, briefing U.S. reporters this week, said Israel is prepared to deal with any democratically elected Palestinian government, saying it would be up to Hamas leaders to renounce terrorism if they wished to take part in an elected authority.

Mr. Olmert said it was not clear whether Hamas would renounce its violent past.

“They have to answer that question themselves. I don’t,” he said.

David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington.

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