- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

QALQILYA, West Bank - Wajih el-Nazzan wears two hats — mayor of this midsize Palestinian city and activist with the militant Islamist group Hamas.

What’s more, he has been in an Israeli prison for more than two years, a so-called “administrative detainee” being held without trial or formal charges.

Mr. el-Nazzan ran his political campaign by cell phone from prison, and in elections last month, he and six other Hamas activists defeated all seven incumbents from the ruling Palestinian Authority.

Until now, longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had appointed everyone at the local level. But since Mr. Arafat’s death last year, the Palestinians have transformed some 200 city councils in the West Bank and Gaza Strip into elective posts.

Hamas is best known for killing hundreds of Israelis in suicide attacks during more than four years of fighting.

But in February, Hamas called a truce, and by agreeing to run its own candidates for political office, it has suddenly created something that looks a lot like a two-party system: Hamas vs. Mr. Arafat’s Fatah party, which is virtually synonymous with the ruling Palestinian Authority.

“The Islamic world is fertile ground for terrorism because of the lack of real democracy,” Mr. el-Nazzan said in a telephone interview from his prison cell late last month — coincidentally his first day on the job.

The irony of echoing President Bush, who began his second term with a call for democracy in the Arab world as an antidote for terrorism, is not lost on Mr. el-Nazzan.

“The first democratic process took place during the time of the prophet Muhammad. We go back a long time before Bush,” Mr. el-Nazzan said.

“Concerning President Bush’s vision of democracy in the Middle East: Number 1, there should be no pressure [from the United States] on the people of the Middle East on whom to elect,” Mr. el-Nazzan said.

“If and when democracy comes to the Islamic world, it is the task of the Americans to treat people like us — even if we are Islamists — with respect.”

Hamas unseated Fatah in dozens of city councils across the Gaza Strip and West Bank in the first two rounds of municipal elections, which began late last year. In bigger cities, its victories over incumbent Arafat appointees have been of landslide proportions.

Hamas’ success, in turn, creates a problem for the Bush administration — what to do about terrorist groups such as Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, now that both are winning elections and taking office?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Washington Times in an interview earlier this year that democracy has the power to moderate the militants. But she stopped short of saying that U.S. officials are ready to start talking to either group.

Statements from other Bush administration officials, emphasizing that both Hamas and Hezbollah are designated terrorist groups and, therefore, off-limits to formal contact by American diplomats, reflect a degree of uncertainty on how to proceed.

Nevertheless, Hamas’ participation in local elections has turned the West Bank and Gaza Strip into a testing ground for Mr. Bush’s democracy drive — a topic that is certain to arise during Miss Rice’s visit to the Middle East this week.

A new era

Since Mr. Bush devoted his second inaugural address to “the cause of human freedom,” which he called the “one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment,” tepid reforms have come to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

In Lebanon, mass protests led to the first elections in a generation without the presence of occupying Syrian troops. In Iraq, the evolving U.S. exit strategy depends on the ability of the nation’s first freely elected government to defeat a deadly insurgency with force, persuasion or a combination of both.

But in the future state of Palestine, democratization is advancing at a rate that few thought possible.

Until a few months ago, Hamas sent suicide bombers into Israel almost on a daily basis.

Olive groves on the rocky hills of cities such as Qalqilya and nearby Tulkarem provided both cover and proximity to Israeli towns and cities as close as 10 miles away.

Young Hamas recruits laden with explosives could walk to their targets — typically, restaurants and outdoor shopping malls — to deliver their deadly payloads.

The militant group, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in the Gaza Strip in the late 1980s. According to many accounts, its founders had Israel’s tacit support because the Jewish state was looking to Islam as a counterforce to the secular, Marxist-inspired Fatah movement controlled by Mr. Arafat.

Today, Hamas leaders make no apologies for attacks on civilians inside Israel and Jewish settlers, who have colonized vast tracts of Palestinian land in Gaza and the West Bank.

“We are occupied people, and occupied people have the right to resist,” said Sheik Hasan Yousef, the top Hamas official in the West Bank.

But at the moment, Sheik Yousef says, Hamas is committed to its cease-fire, and the Palestinians need to clean up a mess of their own making.

“As a result of the internal Palestinian situation, which lacks democracy and is corrupt in all aspects, we have decided to enter political life,” said the sheik, a stocky man with a salt-and-pepper beard who greets Western guests warmly and laughs easily at the ironies of life.

Hamas has committed itself to a “state of calm” until the end of the year.

Sheik Yousef, who spent years in Israeli prisons, rejects a notion that is common among European and Canadian officials, as well as left-leaning Americans, that Hamas has separate military and political wings that can be dealt with as if they are two separate organizations.

One voice

“We are united as one voice. All our members behave according to decisions from the top. I can assure that no breaches [of the cease-fire] will take place without a decision from the top,” he said.

With just a few exceptions, the truce has held since a February deal brokered by Mahmoud Abbas, who is both president of the ruling Palestinian Authority and leader of its dominant Fatah party.

Hamas is popular with Palestinian voters in large part because its Islam-inspired asceticism contrasts sharply with rampant corruption associated with officials in Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, who have ruled since Mr. Arafat’s return from exile under the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Hamas’ popularity also stems from a network of schools, health clinics and food-distribution programs, an unofficial social safety net financed by charity.

The network stands in sharp contrast to the failure of the Palestinian Authority to use billions of dollars of aid from Europe, the United States and elsewhere to provide similar services.

Hamas’ popularity and widespread anger at the Palestinian Authority prompted Mr. Abbas to indefinitely postpone July elections for a Palestinian parliament, a type of national government.

To outsiders, the delay looks like a last-ditch attempt to reform and win back the trust of voters, who for the first time have an alternative in what was previously a one-party system.

So where does this leave the Bush administration, which has broadened its battle against terrorism from a strategy that relies on military means to one that emphasizes democratic reform?

When Miss Rice visited The Times’ newsroom in March, she gave perhaps the most expansive explanation of the shift — an idea that one day could be known as the “Rice doctrine.”

“I tend to believe that when people start getting elected and have to start worrying about constituencies and have to start worrying not about whether their fire-breathing rhetoric against Israel is being heard, but about whether or not that person’s child down the street is able to go to a good school, or that road has been fixed, or life is getting better, that things start to change.”

She said U.S. officials had “gone back to see” what Hamas candidates who had won during the first round of municipal elections were talking about.

“They talked about social services, and they talked about kids going to school and things like that. I don’t mean to underestimate the impact of radical Islamists having a say in the political process,” she noted.

The Rice doctrine

“But remember that the political process also has an effect on those who run it.”

The Bush administration reportedly has low-level contacts with Hamas officials based in southern Lebanon, but it still rejects suggestions that it work with those just elected in the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas’ designation as a “terrorist organization” presents legal — though not insurmountable — obstacles to contact with U.S. officials. Apart from its history of targeting Israeli civilians, Hamas’ charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

The group has no tradition of accepting the two-state solution that forms the basis of U.S.-brokered peace efforts with Israel.

Thus, the White House says it will continue to shun elected Hamas officials, despite pressure from Europe and elsewhere to do otherwise.

“We don’t recognize that you have changed your behavior just because a group is running candidates as well as suicide bombers,” a senior administration official recently told the New York Times.

To top Israeli officials, such as Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Hamas is the enemy and its goal is to destroy the Jewish state.

“Hamas has no right to a dialogue with the free world,” Mr. Shalom said in a recent interview in his Jerusalem office that overlooks the West Bank.

At the time, Mr. Shalom broke publicly with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by calling for Israel to scrap plans to evacuate Jews from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

The subsequent Palestinian decision to delay its parliamentary election, in all likelihood well beyond the mid-August Israeli withdrawal, eliminates that choice.

But pressure for Israel to deal with Hamas mayors and city council members won’t go away.

Israeli newspapers report that the Civil Administration, a branch of the Israeli military that acts as a liaison between Israel and Palestinian-controlled cities and towns, is set to begin working with Qalqilya’s city council.

Israeli mayors reportedly also have been meeting with their Hamas counterparts in the West Bank.

Elected Hamas officials, in turn, say they are willing to work with Israelis on administrative matters such as water and electricity supplies, which affect the day-to-day lives of people. Such contacts, they say, will involve the Palestinian Authority’s ministry for local governments.

Few expect Israelis and Palestinians to hold hands and sing “We Are the World” anytime soon.

Nervous truce

Instead, the situation reminds a visitor of two steely-eyed gunslingers circling each other nervously, but with their Colt 45s still holstered.

During the cease-fire, Palestinians have died in Israeli military strikes and Hamas has fired mortars into Jewish settlements in Gaza.

After the latest tit-for-tat attacks last week, Hamas made its most serious threat since February to call off the cease-fire but stopped short of doing so.

Israel today enjoys a measure of normalcy not seen since the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.

In the pre-dawn hours of Israel’s Independence Day last month, revelers — including students and young families pushing babies in strollers — packed a pedestrian mall that radiates from Zion Square at the intersection of Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda and Jaffa streets, the site of some of the deadliest Palestinian suicide bombings in recent years.

Much if not most of Israel’s security comes from a barrier that separates Israel from much of the West Bank.

In open areas, the barrier consists of a fence.

But in high-traffic areas, it is a towering concrete wall at least three times the height of the old Berlin Wall or, more recently, the barrier set up by U.S. forces to protect the green zone in downtown Baghdad.

In Qalqilya, the barrier surrounds the city.

Concrete higher than the city’s skyline seals off the main entrance, and in its shadow lies a no-man’s land. No one dares approach the wall at the end of a tree-lined street for fear of being shot by Israeli forces that ring the city.

“People live inside a big jail called Qalqilya because there is no freedom of movement,” said Mustapha Sabri, 33, one the newly elected city council members.

But life in the city these days moves to a different rhythm.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Sabri and five others, including civil engineers, toured a network of roads being built on the outskirts of town.

A cylindrical sample, the size of a stack of cookies, drilled from the road’s surface to the rock-gravel bed, allows them to inspect quality and make sure contractors are not cutting corners.

Palestinians on this particular crew and elsewhere in Qalqilya require prompting from a visiting reporter before talking about Israel.

Building a future

Other things are on their mind, such as roads, schools, jobs — the same sort of topics mentioned earlier by Miss Rice.

A worker seals the edge of one freshly paved road with an apron of cement a foot wide, protecting a sewer line and separating the pavement from irrigated lots of tomatoes and eggplant that are interspersed with walled houses and networks of commercial greenhouses.

“I voted for Hamas because I wanted change,” said Yousuf Daoud, 42, a mason busy polishing the cement with trowel in hand.

Mr. Daoud is lucky to have a job with unemployment estimated at 30 percent or higher.

His wages have been frozen for a decade, and as a skilled municipal worker with a growing family, his hopes are as simple as a pay raise.

At the city hall a few miles away, Hashem el-Masri, deputy mayor who won his post as the No. 2 person on the Hamas ticket, said he never in his life expected to become an elected official.

He said he was pressured to run by others in the organization because of his success as a businessman who built a small chain of pharmacies.

With the mayor still in jail (he is scheduled to be released Friday), Mr. el-Masri spends several hours each day in the mayor’s office, still adorned with pictures of Mr. Arafat and mementos of Fatah party rule, where he receives ordinary people who have come to petition their new government.

They bring problems such as difficulties obtaining urgent medical care for a child or close relative.

Mr. Masri said he enjoys that aspect of his job, because most of the time he can help.

The biggest headache for the new government, Mr. el-Masri said, is cleaning up a mess that became obvious the minute he opened file cabinets left behind by the previous administration and was overwhelmed by the chaos inside.

“The Palestinian Authority had many good patriotic projects, but couldn’t follow up because of corruption. We have to implement our ideas of good management.”

A few miles away, Yousef Saleh Daud is having lunch in a small cafe across from the city’s main mosque. Unlike most shops, this one has windows and a door to block out the din and dust kicked up by midday traffic, mostly cars and trucks with an occasional donkey cart.

Like others, he is reluctant to say whether he supports the militant Islamist movement.

An earnest young man of 23, one can guess that his sympathies do not rest with the secular Palestinian Authority.

He rises each day before dawn to arrive at the mosque for morning worship, the first of five daily prayers.

“I have many friends who are fighters, who have died fighting Israel, many who are wanted by Israel,” he said.

But when asked if he has taken up arms against the Jewish state or plans to do so, the answer was an emphatic “no,” and his explanation was even more unexpected.

“After one particularly close friend was killed, shot dead during an Israeli raid, I was desperate,” he said.

“I had an awakening. You could say it came to me one day after praying, but really it happened over a period of time. I realized that violence was not the answer.

“If a proper peace process is given a chance, the wall will go down. There are ways of dealing with this issue, but not through violence.”


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