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Hamas is winning supporters in an old stronghold of Fatah

NABLUS, West Bank—For many years this northern West Bank city was a reliable stronghold for Fatah, the political movement founded five decades ago and led by Yasser Arafat until his death in 2004.

Now, with the first Palestinian parliamentary election since 1996 scheduled for Wednesday, many here are itching to cast Fatah out.

"Fatah is in my blood, but now I want a change," said Hosam Abdel Mu'ti, 35, a stall owner hawking cosmetics beneath an old stone arch in the city's center.

Like many others in this city of 120,000, and across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Mu'ti is fed up with perceived corruption in the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Fatah's leaders "have all been thieves," he said.

"After experiencing them for 10 years we don't trust any of them. They run the government like a private company and close the room for anyone but themselves," Mu'ti said.

His new party of choice is Hamas, the Islamist-based militant and charitable organization that's running candidates for the parliament for the first time.

A strong showing by Hamas could have enormous impact on Palestinian government and relations with the outside world. Hamas has launched repeated suicide attacks against Israel and is considered a terrorist organization by the Israeli and U.S. governments. Now it's promoting government reform. But its ascendance could erode already damaged prospects for peace negotiations since Israel refuses to deal with it. The Hamas charter calls for Israel's destruction.

Until this year Hamas had boycotted Palestinian Authority elections because the Authority was created under interim peace accords with Israel. Having jumped into national politics and honed its message with municipal election victories last year, Hamas has been riding a wave of popularity that derives from its reputation for honest administration and philanthropy.

Unlike veteran Fatah officials who drive Mercedes-Benzes and live in fancy villas, Hamas leaders "are very close to the people, close to their needs," said Yasir Mansour, a Nablus imam running on Hamas' national list.

"We tried (Fatah) but we got no hope from them. It's been words without deeds," said Tamara Asfour, 28, a homemaker throwing her support to Hamas.

Recent polls suggest Hamas could capture at least a third of the seats in the 132-seat parliament known as the Palestinian Legislative Council, or PLC. Some polls show Hamas running neck and neck with Fatah at 30-40 percent each, with the remainder of votes spread among nine other parties. Other polls give Fatah up to a 10-point edge.

At a recent Hamas rally, its lime-green signature color and crossed-swords logo were splashed on hats, banners and on billboards proclaiming "Change and Reform. One hand builds, the other resists. Resistance is a symbol of the dignity of the nation."

Although Hamas campaign literature highlights the national struggle to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and takes credit for forcing the recent withdrawal of Israeli settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip through its campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks, a large part of the group's 20-point platform stresses the failings of Fatah and the need for internal reform of Palestinian institutions.

"Fatah was the national movement, but they failed to lead the people. The first change we are calling for is inside Palestinian society," said Mohammed Akbar, 32, a teacher who joined the rally, which began with a parade in light rain after noon prayers at the city's central mosque.

Still, not everyone in Nablus is ready to walk away from Fatah.

Photography studio owner Hisham Shaban, 60, is a dyed-in-the-wool Fatah man.

His favorite candidate is Ghassan Shaka'a, the Fatah-affiliated former mayor of Nablus, now running for parliament.

"He was a mayor. He has experience. Why do we need a change?" Shaban said.

Candidate Moa'wiah A. Masri, 61, a Nablus internist, has been an independent member of the PLC since its founding in 1996. Now he's hitched his campaign to the growing clout of Hamas' political machine.

"I am still independent. But now Hamas supports me and I support Hamas," he said, following his appearance draped in a green scarf on the podium where candidates were introduced. "The people in Hamas are the most honest with our people. They do what they say."

The problem with Fatah, Masri said, is that its elected officials and appointed bureaucrats have used public service to line their pockets, raking off millions of dollars annually in taxes on gasoline, tobacco and other commodities.

"Where does the money go? God knows? It wasn't entering the budget," he said.

Muayad Salah, 37, an organizer with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, has supported Fatah his whole life. He was a Fatah member when he threw stones in the first intifada, or uprising, and was wounded by Israeli gunfire, a Fatah member when he was imprisoned in Israel and a Fatah member when Israel deported him to Jordan in 1992.

But his frustration with Fatah's "corruption and mismanagement," he said, is driving him away.

Unlike many of his friends who support Hamas or have turned to it as a protest vote against Fatah, he's throwing his support to a largely secular party called The Third Way.

"Fighting against the (Israeli) occupation is not the only reason we are struggling. The other reason is a good society, a democratic society, to see the people smiling because they know they are safe, they have social security," he said. "Fatah is our history, but the older generation of leaders doesn't understand that they should share power with the people instead of just sitting on their chairs" in the PLC.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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

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