Hamas, acronym of the Islamic Resistance Movement, chose the less fearsome title of Change and Reform under which to contest Wednesday’s Palestinian parliamentary election. It was an attempt to reflect the aspirations of an electorate frustrated by the stagnation and corruption associated with Fatah’s 10-year rule.
“Whoever wins, we all want change,” said one of a group of Islamic and secular students who come together to practice their English. “That’s more important than who comes first.”
Party activists were out in force throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, scattering flyers in streets already swamped by banners and posters. Many bore the likeness of Yassir Arafat, the late Fatah leader, or of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound Hamas spiritual guide whose assassination in 2004 Israel hoped would spell the beginning of the end of the Islamic movement.
On what was declared a national holiday, school-aged children decked out in party colours milled around the gates of polling stations handing out lists of favoured candidates that police immediately confiscated from voters entering.
It was a technical violation of election rules but not one that much disturbed the hundreds of foreign observers sent to monitor the poll and whose concerns centred more on the possibility of violence between the rival parties. As polls prepared to close, there were no reports of any serious disturbances.
In Nablus, in the West Bank, gunmen mixed mourning with politics at a funeral march and fired into the air with fingers inked black, proof they had voted that morning.
They were burying Yousef Hassouneh, the local Fatah campaign manager, who was shot dead on Tuesday. Eight members of the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a militia linked to Fatah and held responsible for much recent chaos, were detained in connection with the murder.
In the Jabalya refugee camp, Gaza’s largest and the militant birthplace of the first Palestinian intifada, the green flags of Hamas, the yellow of Fatah and the red of the leftwing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) predominated.
A straw poll of voters indicated most were more concerned about their economic plight than about the prospect of early peace talks with Israel.
“We learned a lesson after the Oslo peace accords,” said Ramiz, a 26-year-old Islamic studies student who voted for Hamas. “All they brought was unemployment and corruption.”
True to Hamas’s image of order and discipline, its candidates for Gaza North arrived as a group to cast ballots at the Shahida Abu Ghazala girls’ school, named in the former leftwing stronghold after a PFLP martyr.
Most of Wednesday’s votes in the constituency were expected to go to Hamas. But local Fatah loyalists were still predicting an overall victory for their party at national level. “Hamas has a chance and it may be in a position to make some changes on social issues,” said Samir Yahiya, a Fatah official.
“But on political issues, such as negotiations with Israel, they will have to follow us. They have no choice if they want to be in government.”
High expectations rested on the elections in Nablus, which has suffered some of the worst violence during the intifada.
More than 500 Palestinians have been killed, 900 houses destroyed and thousands others damaged during Israeli army raids and incursions, according to the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Israeli checkpoints strictly regulate movement in and out of the city, which is surrounded by 14 Jewish settlements.
Ghassan Shakaa, former mayor of Nablus and leading Fatah candidate, was in a sombre mood as he prepared for Wednesday’s funeral. Mr Shakaa quit as mayor in 2004, soon after his brother was killed, to protest against the increased lawlessness and he blamed the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade for the latest murder.
“These people are well known in Nablus, they are gangsters involved in blackmail,” he said as his heavily-armed bodyguards huddled close.
He acknowledged widespread disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority and Fatah while still confident of electoral victory. “The PA failed to give what the people want - to get rid of the occupation and provide Palestinians with prosperity and security and freedom.”
Ala Sanajreh, an Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade leader on the run with his comrades in the nearby Balata refugee camp, dismissed the recent violence as “family feuds”. He said 42 members of the brigade, almost all wanted by Israel, had dropped their threats to disrupt the election. They put down their arms, including 32 guns, rifles and pistols, before entering the polling station to vote for Fatah.
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