Hamas scores at the ballot box in challenge to Fatah

Hamas declared itself a significant political force after West Bank local election results were announced yesterday. It was the first time the Islamic movement, branded a terrorist organisation by Britain and other Western governments, had contested any local or national election.

Both Hamas and the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah party claimed victory. Hanan Yousef, a West Bank Hamas leader, said: "This election has proved that we have a strong presence here. This means the Hamas programme of resistance has many supporters."

It was not always easy to identify the affiliation of the 306 candidates elected in 25 villages and the town of Jericho. Many voters cast their ballots on clan or tribal, rather than party, lines. Others judged candidates on their ability to deliver.

In Shiyoukh, a village in the Hebron hills, Mohammed Halayka, 31, a Hamas voter, insisted: "Hamas is not a terrorist organisation. Hamas has experience in providing services."

Samira Oweidat, 34, a housewife, supported candidates from four different lists. "The most important thing for me," she said, "is to have a medical centre for our children. I have chosen people I think could get it for us."

Fatah claimed 66 per cent of the 144,000 votes cast last Thursday, an 81 per cent turnout. Hamas claimed, however, to control 12 councils with its allies. Both agreed that the elections were fair.

These were the first Palestinian local elections since 1976, when West Bank towns went to the polls, and the first in the villages since the beginning of the Israeli occupation 37 years ago.

"Fatah counted every independent as one of its members," said Hani al-Masri, a Palestinian political analyst. "Hamas counted every religious candidate as one of its members."

Israeli observers estimated that Hamas won up to one third of the votes. That was far higher than opinion polls had indicated. Fatah managers fear that Hamas will fair even better in its Gaza power base, where local elections are scheduled in late January.

Hamas is boycotting presidential elections, due on 9 January, but its local government success could limit the freedom of manoeuvre of Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah front-runner. Mr Abbas launched his campaign on Saturday with a tough speech in which he nonetheless promised to "settle the conflict by means of negotiations".

The Israeli cabinet yesterday endorsed procedures agreed with the Palestinian Authority for the presidential poll. Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister, said: "It should be clear to the entire world that Israel made possible free, fair and effective elections."

Arab residents of East Jerusalem will be able to vote at post offices, as they did in the 1996 election. Israeli troops will gradually withdraw from Palestinian cities and allow armed Palestinian police to secure polling stations. Mr Abbas and other candidates will be free to move around and campaign.

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