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Hamas officials turning focus to local politics

BIDYA, West Bank—Newly elected Mayor Ramadan Shatat makes no apologies for being part of the Islamic militant Hamas movement. He supports suicide attacks against Israelis, whom he views as brutal occupiers. His campaign brochure features a map of Palestine drawn as if Israel didn't exist.

But it's not with Kalashnikovs and Qurans that Shatat battles on behalf of his 10,000 constituents. Instead, his weapons are ledger books and shovels and his enemies are budget deficits and potholes as Hamas moves into politics to gain control of Palestinian society.

"We need more services. We're lacking schools and hospitals. Public libraries don't exist. Not everyone has running water," said Shatat, 33, who with a neatly trimmed moustache and suit and tie looks more like an accountant than a bearded Hamas official and sheik of the local mosque. "Our religion requires us to provide the best."

Bidya is one of at least nine villages where Hamas-affiliated candidates won Dec. 23 municipal elections held in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They were the first such polls in more than two decades, held in areas once dominated by Yasser Arafat's Fatah political movement.

But four years of Israeli-Palestinian violence, escalating poverty and corruption within the Palestinian Authority took their toll, and Fatah lost ground, winning only 14 of the 26 municipalities where elections were held. The faction was expected to lose more ground Thursday, when elections were to be held in the Gaza Strip.

"In some ways it's a protest vote against the Palestinian Authority," said Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and an expert on Palestinian affairs.

Hamas, which rejects the Oslo Accord that established the Palestinian Authority, had long refused to join in Palestinian politics and didn't run a candidate in the presidential race to replace Arafat.

But because the municipal councils existed before Oslo, the movement felt it could use that avenue to take advantage of its rising popularity. Some winning candidates even admit to higher ambitions, such as Shatat's fellow Hamas councilman Ezedeen Ibrahim, 42, who said a race for the Palestinian legislature might be something he would consider "maybe in four years after we solve all the problems here."

Shatat and Ibrahim bristle when asked what steps they would take to assure that the hundreds of thousands of dollars they're seeking from international donor agencies wouldn't end up in Hamas militants' hands. "Hamas contributes to charitable projects. We don't take money from them," Shatat said.

Shatat and Ibrahim are the only ones of the 11-member council to claim membership in Hamas, but at least four others ran on an Islamic ticket and support the organization. The mayor, whose monthly salary is $814, was selected from among the council and won seven of 11 votes.

In the first three weeks of its term, the new council nearly doubled the number of municipal employees from 15 to 25, dispatched workers to repair pockmarked streets and lay U.N.-donated piping to provide running water to a half-dozen homes. The councilmen designed a new village seal, which features an olive tree atop a stone olive press, and appointed 11 committees to deal with community concerns, including health, education and public works.

"This is the real face of Hamas," said Shatat, whose campaign brochure stated that he and Ibrahim each served three years in Israeli jails. "The other is one created by the media."

Non-Hamas members of the council say they work well with their Islamic party counterparts. "We provide services and help to our residents. We're not politicians," said Mohammed Saleh, 49, a Fatah supporter. "We can cooperate on civil matters."

Bidya, six miles from the Israeli border and surrounded by Jewish settlements, has a history of Palestinian militancy. One of the men convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center is a Bidya native. In 1988, residents reportedly shot and killed the town's mayor, whom they accused of collaborating with Israel.

Tensions eased after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords and Bidya became a popular shopping center for Israeli bargain-hunters and Palestinian merchants.

But tensions resumed with the eruption of the Palestinian uprising four years ago. The first civilian among more than 1,000 Israelis killed in the conflict was shot near Bidya on Oct. 2, 2000. Military checkpoints appeared at key access points outside the village, while Israeli employers, in Israel and from local settlements, refused to hire Palestinians, eliminating Bidya's key source of hard currency.

More recently, the controversial security barrier that Israel is erecting to keep Palestinians out of Jewish areas is threatening to cut villagers off from hundreds of acres of their farmland and other Palestinian cities.

Bidya residents say they were frustrated by their previous mayor, appointed by the Palestinian Authority. He failed to regularly collect electric and water fees from residents and allowed city services to deteriorate. Bidya has a $654,000 deficit, Shatat and the other council members charge.

Shatat certainly appears popular. On a recent day, he was greeted with smiles and waves as he drove around town in his well-worn 1986 Subaru. His cellular phone rang every few minutes, mostly religious calls asking Shatat whether something was "haram"—forbidden—or "halal"—permitted—under Islam.

"He's the first one I voted for," Azia Qassem, 52, said as Shatat stopped to say hello. "He's religious and loyal, and I trust him.

"If we hadn't wanted an Islamic council, we wouldn't have voted for one."

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LOOK AT HAMAS

Hamas is a fundamentalist Islamic group founded in the 1980s to create an Islamic state in place of Israel. The word "Hamas" translates as Islamic Resistance Movement. It has thousands of supporters, but official membership numbers are unavailable.

The group has a military wing and charitable and political wings. The charitable and political wings have created mosques, schools and other social organizations in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. The military wing has recruited suicide bombers and led attacks against Israel. It has executed Palestinians accused of working with Israel. The group's founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was killed by Israeli rockets last year, as was his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

Hamas is funded primarily by donations from Palestinians around the world, with some funds from Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. The U.S. State Department declared it a terrorist organization in 1995.

Sources: Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2002; Federation of American Scientists.

For more information on Hamas:

Congressional Research Service report, 1993: http://www.fas.org/irp/crs/931014-hamas.htm

Wikipedia—Hamas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamas

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(Compiled by researcher Tish Wells)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-HAMAS

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