- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The streets of Gaza City were filled with gunfire last night, but it was not the postelection violence that many had feared.

The shooting came from carloads of joyful Fatah followers who poured into the city’s central square, firing their AK-47s into the air, singing and honking car horns at the release of exit polls showing a narrow victory over Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections yesterday.

“I have fired 120 bullets tonight. We are here to celebrate. We know that Palestine will be victorious over all enemies and against everybody,” Nasir Ghassam, a 24-year-old Interior Ministry security officer, shouted over the din.

The celebrants, recognizable as Fatah followers by their yellow banners and checkered headscarves, gathered under a huge billboard emblazoned with the face of their late leader Yasser Arafat, waving their hands in “V-for-victory” signs.

The shamrock green banners of Hamas were absent from the tumultuous streets, even here in the militant movement’s stronghold — a city where it was thought to have captured all three legislative seats.

“Today is a victory in Palestinian history,” said one man who identified himself as Abu Sief, a local Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade commander.

Looking forward to the process of forming a new government, he said, “We welcome the chance for other factions to take part in democracy and in government and in security.”

Earlier in the day, voters pondered the future of their fragmented lands and argued whether the best way to deal with Israel was through Fatah, the only government most people have known, or through Hamas, the Islamic party with significant military and social service wings.

Rawya Sokkar, 35, said she had not seen life in Gaza improve since she voted for Fatah a decade ago.

“That is why I support Hamas,” the seamstress said, all but invisible behind a black veil. “They are heroes, martyrs and brave.”

To many Palestinians, it is Hamas — not the government — that provides desperately needed medical and educational services, not to mention jobs and armed protection. To some, Fatah is a corrupt government whose members have enriched themselves instead of caring for ordinary citizens.

But Bassem Gaber, a Ramallah police captain, supported the incumbents.

“Fatah is the movement to lead Palestinian people to independence,” he said, clenching a cigarette in the ink-dipped fingers that prove he voted. Alluding to widespread corruption, he acknowledged that “there were mistakes, but you can’t just start over.”

Although Fatah had more well-known candidates, it was Hamas that seemed to set the election agenda for voters by vowing to clean up government corruption and cronyism and to continue resisting Israeli occupation. The group’s key slogan has been “one hand to rebuild, the other to resist.”

Another slate on the ballot was the secular Third Way, which includes former Fatah legislator Hanan Ashrawi.

Hamas has a reputation for providing schools, medical care and social services. The party leadership has sought to soften its often violent anti-Israeli rhetoric without abandoning its basic message that Israel is not welcome in the Middle East.

No serious incidents were reported yesterday, despite predictions of violence among militias.

With election day declared a holiday, adults and children turned up at polling places decked out in scarves in black-and-white checks, such as the one worn by Mr. Arafat, or in the vivid green of Hamas.

Throughout the territories, car antennas displayed Hamas green, Fatah yellow and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Communist red banners.

“I am boycotting the elections,” said Mohammad Assar, a 30-year-old junior high civics teacher in tumbledown Rafah.

“At the end of the day, it’s a political game that won’t give us any rights. There is still a … wall; there are still problems.”

He said he supports Islamic Jihad, a primarily militant movement that shunned the elections.

“What is taken by power should be returned by power,” he said.

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