- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The militant movement Hamas is in position to establish a major presence in the Palestinian parliament in the first elections since 1996, registration for which began earlier this month.

The municipal and parliamentary balloting, projected to begin on the local council level before the end of the year, will offer Palestinians their first chance to vote on their leadership since the heyday of the Oslo peace process.

But with widespread disillusionment over corruption in the Palestinian Authority and the lack of a firm date prompting doubts whether the elections will be held at all, the response has been lackluster at best.

Further obstacles have been thrown up by Israeli authorities, who this week arrested several Palestinians for registering voters in East Jerusalem, a Palestinian-majority area that Israel regards as part of its eternal capital.

All that has left a huge opening for Hamas, which boycotted the 1996 vote to protest the Oslo process but is encouraging its followers to register this time.

Untarnished by the charges of corruption that have soured many on the Palestinian Authority and its president, Yasser Arafat, Hamas is running even with Mr. Arafat’s Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip and positioned to win at least some legislative seats in the West Bank, polls show.

Some Hamas officials believe their movement, which has yet to make a final decision on whether to run, could capture at least some local councils and enough seats in parliament to seriously challenge Fatah.

“People are not sure that this election will transform them or move them forward,” said Ghazi Hamad, who edits a newspaper affiliated with the radical movement behind most attacks on Israelis launched from Gaza. “Hamas is trying to tell the people that this election may lead the way to reforming the situation.”

Baha Bakri, a spokesman for the Central Election Commission, said his organization’s goal is to sign up at least 60 percent of the 1.6 million Palestinians who have the right to vote.

But he acknowledged that only 4 percent to 12 percent of eligible voters have turned up at the 1,000 registration centers established by the commission earlier this month.

Mr. Bakri said he was optimistic that the pace would pick up before the Oct. 7 deadline for registration, but acknowledged that the public has low expectations.

“The political message to the people is unclear,” Mr. Bakri said. “There’s general apathy among voters and a general lack of trust for PA institutions and the politicians.”

The problems were compounded on Monday when Israeli officials shut down voter registration offices in Arab East Jerusalem, home to about 230,000 Palestinians.

Palestinian public information officer Hazem Balousha told the Reuters news agency that six voter registration centers in the city had been shut and that nine employees had been detained.

Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman told the news agency that four women were being held after police found evidence “they were carrying out illegal polling activities.”

He said Israel suspected the closed offices were being used for operations that violated an interim peace accord “that bars the Palestinian Authority from carrying out polling or voting activities in Jerusalem.”

Mr. Balousha was quoted as saying the Palestinians would seek “alternative plans to secure the participation of the people of Jerusalem in the elections process.”

But there are doubts that Mr. Arafat will allow any voting to go ahead if he expects to lose control of the legislature and municipal councils, a real possibility given the level of frustration with his administration.

“Whoever represents the Palestinian people should be a model, but they’re not models — they’re cheaters and liars,” said Mahmoud Abu Awad, 25, a security guard who said no one in his extended family planned to vote. “There’s no guarantee the new [officials] will be better.”

In the first phase of municipal voting, only about one-third of Palestinian localities are scheduled to vote — leaving out all of the major cities. Many see the staggered plan as a tactic by Mr. Arafat to limit the initial balloting to areas where Fatah loyalists are assured of victory.

“You realize they’ve selected councils where certain groups in Fatah can manipulate the results,” said Ala Jaradat, who served as an election observer in 1996. “They will not run elections in a village council where they know that Hamas and its affiliates are going to win.”

If the current PA leadership does manage to engineer a solid victory, it would be an embarrassment to the United States and Israel, which have been trying to isolate Mr. Arafat and calling for new Palestinian leadership.

“The basic belief is that elections are not a realistic outcome right now, given the opposition of the U.S. and Israel and the reluctance of the Palestinian Authority,” said Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.

“The public doesn’t believe this is a real thing. Registering to vote means you’re participating to determine your leaders and your future. Most people think this is make-believe.”

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