- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Islamist group Hamas won an overwhelming victory in local elections in Gaza towns, election officials said yesterday, in a setback for the Fatah faction of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The Hamas victory in Thursday’s vote reflected widespread support in the Gaza Strip for the Islamist movement, which provides welfare, schools and kindergartens to the impoverished residents of the territory and is the strongest militant group carrying out attacks against Israel.

However, it appeared residents mostly voted on local issues and to express their anger over corruption in the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, rather than in support of Hamas’ campaign of violence.

“We need to have good education and a good heath system,” said Mona Ibrahim in Bani Suhalia in southern Gaza. “Fatah has been all about nepotism and bribes. Nepotism and bribes flourished during the Fatah era.” The results could give Hamas more leverage in its negotiations with Mr. Abbas over power sharing. The results could herald a similar strong showing for Hamas in legislative elections set for July.

An Associated Press analysis based on lists provided by the competing factions found that Hamas won 75 council seats in the 10 electoral districts, Fatah 30, independents three, the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine one, and clan-affiliated Fatah supporters nine. Official results were to be published later.

Palestinian Authority Local Affairs Minister Jamal al-Shobaki said the overall turnout was 85 percent and 20 of the 118 winners were women.

Thousands of Hamas supporters took to the streets of Gaza yesterday to celebrate the victory. Chanting “Hamas is the real way for reform and rebuilding,” the supporters waved green Hamas flags and distributed candy.

Voters said they supported Hamas because it stood for good government — a sharp contrast to the corruption and cronyism they attributed to Fatah rule.

During more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, Hamas carried out scores of attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis. But the group also runs an alternate welfare network, providing cheap medical and child care, at a time when the Palestinian Authority is increasingly unable to provide services.

Mr. Abbas has been trying to co-opt militants into the system, recently winning a pledge from them to temporarily halt attacks on Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon praised the Palestinian leadership for its actions. “I believe that the conditions are now ripe to allow us and the Palestinians to reach a historic breakthrough in the relations between us,” he told a convention of building contractors in Tel Aviv Thursday evening.

Israel’s army chief ordered troops to halt operations in the Gaza Strip yesterday and to scale back raids in the West Bank, as hundreds of Palestinian police deployed in the volatile central and southern parts of the territory.

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