Hundreds of Palestinians marched through Gaza City yesterday to celebrate the sweeping victory of Hamas candidates in the first local elections held in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli and Palestinian officials interpreted it less as a vote for continuing the violence than as an opportunity for the Islamic movement to reinvent itself as a political party sharing power under Mahmoud Abbas's reforming presidency.
Hamas, which has dispatched hundreds of suicide bombers against Israeli civilians during the four-year intifada and seeks a Muslim state in the whole of historic Palestine, claimed 77 seats out of 118 in the 10 town and district councils where polling took place on Thursday. Fewer than 40 seats went to the ruling Fatah party. Hamas will control seven councils.
Mahmoud Zahar, its Gaza political leader, hailed the vote as "a huge achievement for the Palestinian people". But he declined to crow. The results, he said, were good for Mr Abbas, who had decided to hold the elections. The 88 per cent turnout was not a vote against anyone.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said the successes would increase the pressure for Hamas candidates to contest parliamentary elections scheduled for July. Hamas boycotted presidential elections earlier this month, but unlike the smaller, more radical Islamic Jihad it has always aspired to a political role. It built much of its popular appeal on a network of grassroots social and educational services.
Ra'anan Gissin, a spokes-man for the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was unusually phlegmatic. "The elections could have a positive effect," he said.
"This could be a strong incentive for ending terrorism. Now Hamas have to keep their promises and improve the living conditions of the people. You can't take part in decision- making and at the same time continue terrorist activity."
Hanan Ashrawi, an independent Palestinian legislator, argued that the Gaza electors had voted out of family or tribal loyalty rather than for an extreme Islamist agenda. "Hamas put forward credible people with good standing in their communities," she said. "They voted for efficiency and integrity."
She saw no threat to Mr Abbas's chances of winning a parliamentary majority for ending corruption and negotiating a two-state solution. "The more the Palestinian Authority succeeds in carrying out reforms, delivering services and establishing the rule of law," she said, "the more it will help moderate candidates in the future".
Both Palestinians and Israelis took further steps yesterday towards what Mr Sharon labelled on Thursday as a potentially "historic breakthrough" that could lead to peace. The Palestinians deployed more than 2,000 armed policemen in southern Gaza with orders to stop gunmen launching rockets and mortars at Jewish settlements. A similar force, already posted to northern Gaza, has drastically reduced attacks on the Israeli border town of Sderot.
Israel reciprocated yesterday by cutting military operations in Gaza to a minimum to enable the Palestinian security services to take responsibility for ending the violence. As another gesture, Lieutenant-General Moshe Ya'alon, the chief of staff, ordered soldiers to stop targeting West Bank gunmen, unless they posed an immediate threat.Reuse content