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Palestinians brandish party hats for Gaza poll (FT-FINANCIAL TIMES) By Harvey Morris in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip 01/27/05)Source: http://news.ft.com/cms/s/28d0808a-70d3-11d9-b572-00000e2511c8.html FT} FINANCIAL TIMES FT} FINANCIAL TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
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 destroyed.

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 town".

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 with Israel.

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. 01/27/05)

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