Palestinians brandish party hats for Gaza poll (FT-FINANCIAL TIMES) By Harvey Morris in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip 01/27/05)
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A decade and more ago during the first intifada, Beit Hanoun was
known as "Little Moscow" for its allegiance to the Marxist Popular
Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
At municipal elections yesterday, however, the red baseball caps of
the Front´s partisans were easily outnumbered by the yellow ones of
the ruling Fatah movement.
However, if hats were votes, the green of Hamas, an Islamic militant
group that until a week ago was using Beit Hanoun and its
surroundings to launch rockets at Israel, would be certain to triumph.
The town of 35,000 people has suffered as much as any in Gaza during
the past 4˝ years of violence. Voters who turned out to elect a
president on January 9 overwhelmingly supported Fatah´s Mahmoud Abbas
and his pledge to end the militarisation of the uprising.
Most said they were weary of the violence, which peaked last summer
with the Israeli army´s occupation of the town following a Qassam
rocket attack that killed two Israelis.
UN humanitarian officials said that in a month 17 Palestinians were
killed and 154 wounded. Power, water and sewage supplies were
disrupted. Olive and citrus groves were razed and about 30 houses
Some began to blame Hamas and other militants for the Israeli
retaliation brought on by rocket attacks on the Israeli border town
of Sderot, a mood that appeared to be reflected by January´s large
pro-Fatah vote in an election that Hamas did not contest.
The Islamists were out in force for the first municipal elections in
the Gaza Strip, one of a series of four polling days that will
eventually include all the Palestinian territories. Beit Hanoun and
nine other constituencies voted yesterday.
It used to be said by many Palestinian analysts that Hamas needed its
military operations against Israel to maintain its popularity in
the "Palestinian street", a largely silent constituency on whose
behalf every political movement claims to act and speak.
After a week of almost complete quiet as a result of an effective but
undeclared ceasefire negotiated by Mr Abbas, it may turn out that the
opposite is true. Hamas, increasingly focusing on its political
rehabilitation with a view to power-sharing within the Palestinian
Authority, appeared to have lost little of its popularity among
voters in Beit Hanoun.
Supporters ranged from a young boy in a traditionally Fatah
household, who was perhaps mostly swayed by the gift of a green hat,
to 87-year-old Abu Owda.
He was born in the year the British ousted the Ottomans from Gaza and
his vote at a US-funded refugee school was the first he had cast.
His wife, Fatma, hoped, more prosaically, that the election would
help ease the life of Beit Hanoun "and keep the Israelis out of the
Fatah controls the existing appointed council but Hamas, and possibly
the Popular Front, looked likely to make gains.
The Front was effectively squeezed out of local politics under the
late Yassir Arafat´s regime after it opposed his Oslo peace accords
Hamas, however, although also in opposition, used the past decade to
build up a strong constituency by combining confrontation with Israel
and practical welfare assistance to the poor, including most recently
tons of meat for last week´s Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice.
If results today show Hamas has done well in Gaza, it might further
encourage the party to choose in favour of fielding candidates at the
more crucial parliamentary elections in July. © Copyright The
Financial Times Ltd 2005. (© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2005.
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