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Hamas expected to gain in Palestinian municipal elections

SINJIL, West Bank—Subhiya Hussein is the kind of voter Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah political faction has come to dread.

Like most other Palestinians, the 40-year-old housewife and mother of five voted for Abbas in January. But on Thursday, she voted for Islamist candidates aligned with the Hamas movement in municipal elections in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Fed up with the lack of electricity and water at home and with unpaved, one-lane roads unable to accommodate traffic in this growing Fatah stronghold 11 miles northeast of Ramallah, Hussein said she wanted someone who could get the job done.

"I voted for those who pray and go to the mosque," Hussein said.

She was one of more than 2,000 residents in Singil who voted in the largest round of municipal elections since December, when the Islamic militant group Hamas made significant gains. Preliminary results will be announced Friday.

Political parties aren't important, she said. "I just want someone who will provide services."

The appeal of piety threatens to derail the secular Fatah party, which has controlled the Palestinian Authority since the quasi-governmental body was established with the 1993 Oslo Accord.

Now, allegations of corruption and a lingering war with Israel have left most Palestinians fed up with seeing the same people in power, year after year.

While one exit poll Thursday indicated Fatah had won some 51 percent of the municipal seats, Hamas and another militant faction, Islamic Jihad, were expected to gain political ground Thursday. More than 2,500 candidates vied for seats in 76 Palestinian villages, towns and cities across the West Bank and eight in the Gaza Strip.

The Islamist candidates in the West Bank don't openly associate with Hamas, a move that could bring reappraisals from Israel, but they're accused by Fatah of working in parallel with the militant organization and benefiting from its image as being above corruption.

A February poll by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that piety was the most important quality voters said they were seeking in the candidates they planned to support in July's parliamentary elections. The poll of 944 Palestinians had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.19 percentage points.

The surge in religious candidates threatens Abbas' already weakening hold on power at a time when he's unable to offer Palestinians meaningful relief from their daily struggles with Israeli military checkpoints and growing unemployment.

Expected electoral gains by Hamas, which the State Department calls a terrorist group, could also raise questions about the Bush administration's promotion of democracy in the Middle East, which has led to gains by Islamic fundamentalists with militant wings such as Hamas and the Lebanese faction Hezbollah.

Abbas worked hard to win a truce with Israel. Now that's coming under strain, with a further blow Thursday night when crude Qassam rockets launched from the Gaza Strip struck a home in the Israeli border town of Sderot, causing injuries.

Israel announced Wednesday it would freeze the handover of any further West Bank towns to Palestinian control until Palestinian police began disarming militants in areas under their control.

Fatah officials, fearing Hamas will continue its sweep in critical parliamentary elections in July, have in recent months sought to postpone those polls or issue electoral rules that would give Fatah candidates an advantage.

But Abbas has refused to bow to such pressure, calling for free and fair elections no matter what the outcome.

Fatah primaries on May 27 also offer a chance for the party to recapture Palestinian interest by introducing new faces, said Khalid Fahed Qawasmi, Palestinian Minister of local governments, during a stop at a Sinjil polling station Thursday.

"I think we should respect the choice of the people," Qawasmi said. "Hamas will be represented in the new legislature, and I think Fatah will accept that."

In Sinjil, a pickup adorned with Hamas flags and several sedans bearing Islamic emblems ferried voters to and from hillside polling stations Thursday, even though candidates running on an Islamic platform here disavowed any direct links to Hamas.

Khaled Alwan, who teaches Islamic law at An Najah University and is a member of the only candidate slate in Sinjil, said he and the other eight people running on his list were chosen through the local mosque.

Hamas' decision to participate in government inspired him and the others to run, he said. Fatah candidates ran as individuals.

Being labeled a Hamas candidate prompted Subhi Abdallah Hassan Asfour, 43, to remove his name from Alwan's list and run as an independent.

"They are not Hamas, but the Palestinian Authority said `You are Hamas,'" said Asfour, who runs a perfume shop in Ramallah. "I don't have time for such a thing.

"If you visit our kindergarten, you'd feel very sick," he said. "We have one bathroom for more than 200 children."

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

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

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