- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

QALQILIYA, West Bank — The Islamic militants of Hamas won nearly a third of the West Bank and Gaza towns up for grabs in local elections, unofficial results said yesterday, cementing the group as a significant political force as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas tries to make peace with Israel.

Mr. Abbas’ corruption-tainted Fatah movement, which had feared defeat, did better than expected and held on to control over most of the area, winning in 45 of 84 communities. But Mr. Abbas will no longer be able to ignore Hamas, which has long opposed negotiations with Israel.

Thousands of flag-waving Hamas supporters took to the streets, shooting off fireworks, handing out candy and honking car horns. In Qalqiliya, a West Bank town of 45,000 on the border with Israel, the green Hamas banner was hoisted over city hall as the group swept all 15 local council seats.

Hamas candidates also won control of the two other biggest towns holding elections, Rafah and Beit Lahiya in Gaza.

The election — the third round of local voting by Palestinians this year — was the final test for Mr. Abbas before parliamentary elections in July that could add to pressures to bring Hamas into the Palestinian administration.

Final unofficial results from Thursday’s vote showed Fatah winning 56 percent of the votes and Hamas winning 33 percent, with the remainder going to independents and smaller parties.

According to an Associated Press tally, Fatah won a majority in 45 communities and Hamas in 23. In 16 towns and villages, neither side won a majority, with independents or small groups getting the most votes.

Mr. Abbas has an ambivalent view of Hamas and its political aspirations. He has encouraged Hamas to transform itself into a political party, hoping this will help him quiet extremists and shore up the truce with Israel.

But an increasingly strong Hamas as an opposition party could hinder peace talks. Hamas opposes the existence of the Jewish state and its members have staged dozens of suicide bombings, shellings and shooting attacks on Israel in recent years.

Hamas leaders yesterday tried to allay concerns that they will impose hard-line religious views in the communities they now will govern, saying the group will focus on providing better services in the municipalities.

?We are not Iran or the Taliban,? said Mohammed Ghazal, a senior Hamas official in the West Bank. ?We believe that personal freedom is one of the foundations of Islam.?

However, the rise of Hamas — branded by Israel, the United States and the European Union as a terror group — poses challenges. Many basic municipal functions, such as electricity, telephones and trash collections are handled jointly with Israeli service providers.

Qalqiliya is particularly sensitive because of its nearness to the Israeli town of Kfar Saba.

Kfar Saba was once intertwined with Qalqiliya in a relationship that transcended the conflict. Today, with a security barrier separating the two towns, many municipal services are still combined.

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