- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 1, 2006

QALQILYA, West Bank — One of the few bright spots for Fatah in last week’s Palestinian elections came in this sleepy border town where Hamas swept all 15 municipal council seats eight months ago, only to lose the area’s two parliamentary seats in the face of voter disappointment.

If the pattern is repeated after a Hamas-led government takes charge of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the coming weeks, the long-ruling party founded by the now deceased Yasser Arafat can hope once again to dominate Palestinian politics.

Hamas’ council takeover last spring stunned Fatah and presaged last week’s parliamentary elections, in which the militant Islamic movement exceeded all expectations by taking 74 seats in the 132-seat Palestinian legislature.

The Qalqilya victory was attributed at the time to infighting among Fatah politicians and local frustrations in a community that was encircled by Israel’s separation barrier.

But after more than half a year of Hamas rule in Qalqilya, it was Fatah that carried the district’s two legislative seats — a reversal that many residents put down to disappointment with Hamas’ performance to date.

Hamas politicians are blaming the losses on voter fraud by Fatah activists, but the fragility of Hamas’ new mandate was obvious in a series of interviews in the town this week.

“There is disappointment with Hamas,” said Nidal Hanayel, who heads the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) party in Qalqilya. “The public didn’t feel any improvement in the town. They didn’t make good on their promises.”

Mr. Hanayel said the new town council has made little progress on what it had identified as its top priority — building new schools and hospitals. At the same time, residents resented the council’s decision to ban an international dance festival last summer to prevent social mixing between women and men.

“It is enough time to evaluate their performance,” the PFLP leader said, “and the average citizen has an opinion.”

Members of the new council said they had begun to pay down a $7.5 million municipal debt by initiating procurement tenders that have cut down expenses. They also boasted that they had paved roads and installed street lights in neighborhoods ignored by the previous council.

“This town used to be a one-man show,” said Moyaed Shreim, a Hamas council member, referring to former Mayor Maarouf Zahran. “There were a lot of discrepancies on the previous council. It’s difficult to be in charge.”

Mr. Shreim denied that residents were upset at the cancellation of the dance festival, arguing that Qalqilya is a “conservative” town and the folk festival didn’t jibe with its traditions.

He blamed the parliamentary setback on anger over rising electricity prices, which he said had overshadowed the new administration’s achievements.

Hamas sought to tout those accomplishments before last week’s voting, producing a 36-page brochure titled “Achievements on the Path to Transparency and Justice.” Color photographs of a refurbished local museum and a zoo were used to show highlights of Hamas’ first few months in office.

The public relations effort seems to have backfired, at least with some residents. The projects that Hamas claimed in the booklet, they said, were actually initiated by the Palestinian Authority.

“The booklet does not reflect reality,” said insurance salesman Ali Nazal, 33, during a round-table discussion with fellow residents. “People feel the booklet was a ridiculous insult of their intelligence.”

Mutasem Kanfroi called the parliamentary vote in the city a “correction” for last spring’s municipal landslide and predicted the same would happen elsewhere after a period of Hamas rule. “There was a high tide, and now we’re returning to normal.”

“Hamas is indeed being tested,” said Mr. Hanayel, the PFLP leader. “Four years is not a long period,” he said of the time until the next parliamentary elections. “So let the people experience and judge.”

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