- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2005

TEL AVIV — An exit poll yesterday showed the ruling Fatah party leading Hamas in municipal elections across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a vote that is considered a rehearsal for a battle for the Palestinian legislature later this summer.

The balloting yesterday was the broadest electoral showdown to date between the party of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamic militant group. The voting spanned refugee camps, villages and cities such as Bethlehem. At stake is critical momentum in the months and weeks leading up to the vote for the parliament.

Mr. Abbas’ Fatah badly needed a strong showing after Hamas scored a string of upsets in two previous rounds of municipal voting. Fatah has been crippled by its image as a corrupt and ineffectual party. That has allowed the Islamic militants to adopt reform and clean-government slogans, making Hamas attractive to protest voters.

The exit poll, conducted in 14 of 84 municipalities, showed Fatah controlling or capturing a plurality in 11 municipalities, while Hamas won three. Reports of a Fatah victory were disputed by Hamas spokesmen.

“All the information being spread is false. Our observers in the municipal councils where Hamas is participating say that our movement is making very good progress,” Hassan Youssef, Hamas’ West Bank leader, told Reuters news agency.

Turnout among about 400,000 eligible voters was reported at nearly 70 percent.

Activists and supporters gathered outside polling stations wearing green badges and scarves for Hamas and yellow for Fatah. In one Gaza village, the tension over the vote turned violent as shots were fired and several Fatah supporters were accused of stabbing a Hamas activist.

“If Hamas wins the elections, and has a majority in the legislature, it might be a problem not only for the Palestinians, but also for the Israelis,” said Said Zeedani, a Palestinian political analyst.

“The majority of the Palestinians are in favor of the two-state solution. We know that Hamas is a rational creature, but it isn’t as committed to the two-state solution as the other factions of the [Palestine Liberation Organization]. So Palestinians don’t know what to expect if they win.”

Hamas’ electoral success has prompted comparisons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite fundamentalist movement that ran for parliament even as its militia carried out attacks on Israel. The prospect of Hamas becoming the Palestinian Hezbollah has troubled Israel, and this week officials launched an offensive aimed at delegitimizing elected representatives of the militant group.

“If Hamas wants to be considered a basic political party, there’s one thing they have to do — disarm,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “I don’t know of any political party in the world that is armed to the teeth like Hamas is.”

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom complained earlier this week that a Hamas election victory will leave Israel with the dilemma of recognizing the Islamic militants or boycotting representatives of the Palestinian government.

Some analysts say the Israeli foray into Palestinian electoral politics was not a threat to reject the results, but the start of a negotiating process that could lead to mutual recognition between the two.

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