Hamas plays on its welfare credentials in historic elections

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The Independent Online

If flags were all it took to win elections, Mohammed Nazeq al-Kafarna would be a shoo-in as mayor tomorrow. The green pennants of Hamas flutter from every lamppost on the road into this town of 25,000. But the faction's mayoral candidate in Beit Hanoun's first council elections knows it is not so simple.

If flags were all it took to win elections, Mohammed Nazeq al-Kafarna would be a shoo-in as mayor tomorrow. The green pennants of Hamas flutter from every lamppost on the road into this town of 25,000. But the faction's mayoral candidate in Beit Hanoun's first council elections knows it is not so simple.

He has to persuade voters still trying to recover from the destruction left by a punitive, month-long Israeli Army incursion to stop Hamas firing its Qassam rockets over the border last July. The tactic he has chosen is to ignore the attacks and play to his strengths.

"People are asking for services to be distributed in an equal way," he says. He has pledged to cut out the "middle men" who ensure that those with connections get benefits, from jobs to building permits. The polite, if determined, university lecturer may be a member of an organisation inter- nationally more associated with suicide-bombing than small-town street politics, but here he talks a lot about street-cleaning, water and sewerage.

The polls in selected Gaza districts have become a pilot for the faction's tentative shift from the military to the political track. "Hamas is not only resistance," says Mr Kafarna. "It is also a social and political movement."

In Beit Hanoun, at least, the Hamas candidates may have their work cut out. Fatah has thrown all but one of the existing 13 councillors off its candidates' list to show it knows the council must change what its local campaign director, Meher Shinbari, admits are "many negatives".

And local issues are not the only ones. "The voters will be swayed first by politics [of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], second by the family factor, and third by local services," Mr Shinbari said."The majority are with Abu Mazen [the Palestinian president] and his efforts to stop the Qassam rocket attacks."

Although powerful, the "family factor" is unlikely to be decisive; the town's dominant clans are widely distributed among the 58 candidates.

Nissirin Kafarna, 28, a mother of seven, inclines towards Hamas, because "they are more professional, better educated. We should have projects to create jobs, and after that cleaning and garbage collection."

Nasser Shabat, 40, an unemployed man who used to cross into Israel to work before the intifada, strongly disagreed. "Hamas has ruined things here. I blame it for my unemployment because of the closures."

Mr al-Kafarna suggested a ceasefire fully negotiated with the Palestinian Authority would "gain respect" for Hamas from voters. If he's right, Hamas may just have a vested political interest in continued "quiet". If so, Mr Shabat, will be a happy man. "I don't want Tel Aviv or Haifa," he said. "I want the Israelis out of Beit Hanoun."

* Israel is barring a senior BBC journalist, Simon Wilson, from returning to his job in the country. In a case said to have been referred to prime ministerial level, the Middle East deputy bureau chief was said to have been involved in a breach of censorship rules in an interview with Mordechai Vanunu, the nuclear whistleblower, last May.

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