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Fatah does well, Hamas makes gains in municipal elections

JERUSALEM—Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement survived a bid to unseat it from most municipal councils across the West Bank and Gaza Strip this week, although the Islamic militant faction Hamas captured the three biggest towns up for grabs, preliminary election results showed Friday.

Hamas won Thursday's elections in the towns of Rafah and Beit Lahiya, the most battered in the four-and-a-half-year war with Israel, as well as Qalqiliya, a key border city with Israel that's slated to be handed over to Palestinian control. Hamas also claimed as many as six of the seven seats allotted to Muslims in the holy city of Bethlehem.

"Our victory indicates that the Palestinian people favor the choice of resistance," Hamas leader Ismail Hania proclaimed Friday on his faction's Al Aqsa radio station in Gaza. That message was likely to anger Israeli leaders, who say they won't deal with a Palestinian Authority rife with armed militants sworn to destroy the Jewish state.

Overall, Fatah captured 56 percent of the votes and twice as many councils as Hamas, which received 33 percent of the votes, according to partial and unofficial returns from 76 municipalities on the West Bank and eight on the Gaza Strip. More than 280,000 voters turned out for the elections, which international monitors declared were free and fair.

The preliminary findings leave Fatah in a strong position for its crucial July 17 face-off with Hamas over electing the 88-seat Palestinian Legislative Council.

While the results suggest that some voters appeared willing to forgive Fatah for longstanding allegations of corruption and inaction, it was also clear that a sizable number were drawn to Hamas' social programs, which feed, clothe and school impoverished Palestinians. Many voters on Thursday expressed a wish for pious, honest politicians, an image Hamas has honed.

That trend will continue, Fatah candidates warned Friday, unless their organization revamps its image with new faces and more accountability.

"What the people did was actually punishment for the Palestinian Authority," said former Qalqiliya Mayor Marouf Zaharan, who was trounced along with all other Fatah candidates in the city virtually encircled by Israel's security barrier. "If the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah movement don't go on with reform and fighting corruption, it will happen again."

Recent political gains by the militant faction are disturbing to Israeli officials, who are already angry that Abbas hasn't done more to disarm militants who continue to launch homemade rockets, send suicide bombers and fire on Israeli citizens.

"Hamas can't claim to be a legitimate political party and, at the same time, maintain its independent terrorist capabilities, its weapons, its workshops, its explosives," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Friday. "How can you have fair and open elections in the Palestinian Authority if one of the political movements has the ability to terrorize the population and terrorize those in the polling booths?"

Abbas has resisted Israeli and U.S. pressure to deal forcibly with Hamas, hoping instead to persuade militants to lay down their weapons and pursue negotiations rather than violence as a means to achieving a Palestinian state.

The official elections results will be released Sunday.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed Najib in Qalqiliya, West Bank and Mahmoud Habboush in Gaza City contributed to this report.)

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

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