- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006

NABLUS, West Bank — The final campaign rally of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party was a noisy, overheated affair, with supporters up on their feet, chanting and waving banners over their heads.

But buildings, bridges and lampposts along the road to this central West Bank city were plastered with bright green posters representing Hamas — the militant Islamist movement that is looking for an upset in parliamentary elections today.

Hamas always had been expected to perform well in the Gaza Strip, its traditional power base. But its highly visible presence in the Fatah-dominated West Bank has worried even dedicated supporters of the party created by Yasser Arafat.

“I don’t think Fatah will win,” said Nadia abu Ziaher, a soft-spoken student at Birzeit University who volunteers in the office of Fatah candidate Dalal Salameh.

Miss Ziaher said she likes her candidate more than his party, saying life has become harder since Fatah began ruling the West Bank a decade ago. There are more roadblocks, fewer services and persistent corruption.

Hamas did well in recent municipal elections, she said, and “they deserve it. They’ll work harder.”

Both parties have coordinated extensive get-out-the-vote efforts in Gaza and the West Bank, employing canvassers, rallies, media coverage and smear campaigns.

Recent polls show Hamas gaining rapidly on Fatah, though the presence of several minor parties means neither will achieve an outright majority.

Each voter will cast two ballots — one for a party and one for a candidate running in his local district, with half the seats in the legislative council to be filled by each system. A number of seats have been set aside for women and Christian candidates.

Hamas is expected to win just under half of the votes cast for the political parties, while Fatah candidates are expected to do better than their Hamas rivals in the district-by-district voting.

But if Hamas does well enough to secure seats in the next Palestinian Cabinet, it will create a crisis in relations with Israel, which has refused to negotiate with what it considers a terrorist organization.

The top two names on Fatah’s party slate are those of Mr. Abbas and jailed resistance fighter Marwan Barghouti. But pictures of the late Fatah leader, Yasser Arafat, are everywhere.

“If Fatah wins it will be because of a dead man and a jailed man,” sighed one Ramallah taxi driver.

Many voters, such as a Palestinian border agent at the Erez Crossing into the Gaza Strip, say they will vote for Fatah despite its shortcomings, because they fear that Hamas would exacerbate already inflamed relations with Israel.

Hamas — which is so deeply religious that its female followers sometimes attend separate rallies rather than mix with men — has won many followers with an extensive network of social services and a reputation for honesty.

Hamas also has played on resentment of Israeli occupation, criticizing Mr. Arafat and his successors for negotiating with Israel and catering to its demands.

The United States and the European Union have indicated they could greatly reduce assistance to the Palestinians if Hamas plays a substantial role in the next government.

Hamas has tried to turn the threat to its advantage. “Israel and the U.S. say no to Hamas,” says one flapping banner in Nablus. “What do you say?”

Waheeb Attabeh says yes.

“I am not a religious man, but I am in favor of Hamas,” said Mr. Attabeh, who has sold olive oil in the historic Nablus market for 30 years. “I look to Lebanon and I see [Sheik Hassan] Nasrallah spreading the strength of Hezbollah. I want to see that here.”

Mr. Attabeh, 50, sees parallels between Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which have been declared terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.

Both have stood against corruption, provided significant health care, education and welfare to the poor, and have sponsored separate political and military wings.

By comparison, Mr. Attabeh and many others dismiss Fatah as a clubby organization that looks after its members first and the people later.

Amin Makboul, Fatah’s campaign manager in Nablus, doesn’t deny corruption, but claims Fatah is best positioned to end it.

“Fatah was the first to open the file on corruption,” he declared. “We’re telling people we’ve arrested and judged [the perpetrators].”

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