Israeli leaders brace for possible Hamas “landslide”

January 24, 2006

* Sick of Fatah-PLO-PA corruption and nepotism, Palestinians turn to Hamas
* Hamas charter: “Hamas strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine... Israel will continue to exist until Islam will eliminate it as it has eliminated its predecessors.”

 

CONTENTS

1. The first “real” Palestinian elections
2. “Corruption,” “nepotism,” “bribery,” “stealing”
3. Electoral campaign deaths and injuries unreported in the west
4. Some ballots have already been cast
5. Fatah: Young guard vs. old guard
6. “Hitler” hoping for seat in Palestinian parliament
7. Has Hamas changed?
8. Hamas’ $180,000 spin doctor
9. Hamas’ prospects may be harmed by Fatwa
10. Olmert: No need to voice an opinion
11. U.S. funding for PA election campaign
12. Western leaders prepare for Hamas
13. “New-look Hamas spends 100k on an image makeover” (Guardian, Jan. 20, 2006)
14. “85 women run for Palestinian elections” (AFP, The Peninsula (Qatar), Jan. 23, 2006)
15. “Palestinians urged to vote for God or Arafat” (Reuters, Jan. 20, 2006)
16. “Hamas votes set to sweep Abbas away” (Sunday Times (of London), Jan. 22, 2006)



[Note by Tom Gross]

THE FIRST “REAL” PALESTINIAN ELECTIONS

Tomorrow about 1.3 million Palestinians go to the polls to elect members of the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council. There are 728 candidates standing. Half of the seats will be filled by direct election on a constituency-basis; the other half by proportional representation from party lists. Those monitoring the election include former US president Jimmy Carter and former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt.

These elections are the first to be held by the Palestinians where the result is not a foregone conclusion. (The last Palestinian election campaign in 1996 was rigged from start to finish by Yasser Arafat, yet afterwards several leading western newspapers and western leaders wrongly declared it to have been free and fair.) Fatah, which as the main constituent part of the PLO has ruthlessly dominated Palestinian politics for four decades, and Hamas, polling under the name “Change and Reform,” are likely to gain the bulk of the vote. This is the first time Hamas has participated in a “national” election. (They participated in some local elections last year.)

Other groups infamous for a string of terror attacks on Israeli civilians, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, are also taking part. The terrorist group Islamic Jihad, whose latest suicide bomb in Tel Aviv was only last Thursday, is boycotting the election.

The most recent polls show a narrowing gap between Fatah and Hamas. A poll conducted by The Palestinian Center for Public Opinion on January 23 gave Fatah 39.6% of the vote and “Change and Reform” (Hamas) 28.8% of the vote. The third-placed party, well behind with 7.7% of the vote, was the Independent List led by political activist Mustafa Barghouti. (See the Palestinian-hosted website www.pcpo.ps for more poll details.)

The (London) Sunday Times claimed two days ago that the gap between Fatah and Hamas was now only 45%-42%, “making the final result too close to call.”

“CORRUPTION,” “NEPOTISM,” “BRIBERY,” “STEALING”

Almost all the candidates (including those from Fatah) have placed not relations with Israel, but rampant financial corruption at the top of their electoral platforms. A Hamas advertisement shows the words “corruption,” “nepotism,” “bribery,” “chaos” and “stealing” all exploding in flames in a bid to convince the Palestinian people to vote for a more honest ruling party.

Last week, the European Union suspended aid worth 35 million euros ($42 million) to the Palestinian Authority, citing its lack of budgetary discipline. One of the reasons given by the EU was that the PA had not replaced former Palestinian finance minister, Salam Fayyad, who resigned last November in disgust at PA corruption. (For more on this, see a note in the dispatch of Dec. 2, 2005, Sharon prepares to withdraw from “virtually all” the West Bank by 2008. For more on Fayyad, see the article titled “Auditing Arafat” in the dispatch Arafat appears on “Forbes” world’s richest list, Feb. 28, 2003)

ELECTORAL CAMPAIGN DEATHS & INJURIES UNREPORTED IN THE WEST

Virtually the entire Western media have failed to cover the deaths and injuries that have resulted from the considerable amount of gunfire that has accompanied many Palestinian campaign rallies.

For example, on January 18, 2006, Bassel Kamel al-Sha’er, 20, from Rafah, was killed by a live bullet whilst attending a Fatah rally in Rafah. Two weeks earlier, Rami Talal al-Dalu, 27, from Gaza City, was killed by gunmen following arguments between supporters of Fatah and Hamas in the al-Nasser neighborhood regarding the hanging of posters.

Last week, on January 20, Mohammed Bassam Shuhaiber, an 11-year old child from Gaza City, was injured by a live bullet to the abdomen during a Fatah electoral gathering in al-Sabra. Yesterday, gunmen from a split faction of Fatah shot dead Youssef Hasona, 35, in Nablus while he was hanging posters of another Fatah candidate. And so on.

However, compared to most of the Arab world, this Palestinian election campaign has so far been relatively fair. A survey by the Economist’s EIU late last year put the Palestinians (including those under Israeli control in the West Bank) fifth on an index of 20 Middle Eastern countries ranked according to political and civil liberty. The top four were Israel, Lebanon, Morocco and Iraq.

SOME BALLOTS HAVE ALREADY BEEN CAST

Members of the Palestinian security forces (numbering up to 60,000) were eligible to vote between last Saturday and Monday. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah told supporters on Friday “We urge our brothers in the Palestinian security services to exercise their right to vote in complete freedom... We assure you that if we win, we will be at your service.”

Mahmoud Zahar, another Hamas leader, announced that if Hamas win they would seek to incorporate the PA security forces into Hamas in order to together “fight” Israel.

The Palestinian security forces will be placed on maximum alert to ensure the vote proceeds smoothly. Around 13,000 police officers will be deployed around more than 1,000 polling stations in Palestinian areas, and will enforce a ban on weapons inside these stations.

FATAH: YOUNG GUARD VS. OLD GUARD

This election comes at a time of internal strife within Fatah between the leaders of the second Intifada, whom Palestinians see as less corrupt (although just as violent), and the clique that had previously formed around Arafat, now led by Mahmoud Abbas.

Many of the campaign posters for Fatah have shown images of Yasser Arafat rather than the current Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Basem Ezbidi, a political science professor at Ramallah’s Bir Zeit University told the Washington Times that “on a popular level, people do not see him really as someone whom they can trust to deliver because they’ve given him a full year to deliver, and he didn’t.”

The so-called “Young Guard” is led by Marwan Barghouti, who heads the Fatah list in these elections. Barghouti, the founder of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, is currently in a high security prison cell in Israel’s Negev desert where he is serving five life sentences for murder. He was convicted of the murder of four Israeli civilians and a Greek monk, but is widely suspected of ordering dozens of other murders of Israeli Jews, including the Hadera Bat Mitzvah massacre of January 17, 2002.

Fatah’s election posters feature Barghouti brandishing his handcuffed wrists in a victory salute reminiscent of Yasser Arafat. In separate interviews Israel allowed him to conduct from his prison cell in recent days with two Arabic satellite channels, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, Barghouti called for Fatah and Hamas to be “partners in the field, and in Parliament.”

The Jerusalem Post writes today: “In general, we have reason to be proud of the fact that we hold ourselves to different standards than our enemies. Sometimes, however, our ability to deny and self-abnegate reaches absurd proportions, to the extent that we humiliate ourselves. How else can a decision to allow a convicted terrorist, Marwan Barghouti, to justify his own crimes from prison be interpreted? Barghouti, in his spate of prison interviews, left no doubt as to his authentic support for terrorism. The refusal of supposed moderates, like Barghouti, to abandon either the “right to resist” or the “right to return” demonstrates that they have not given up the quest to destroy Israel. The refusal of Israeli and American policy makers to recognize this and say so, far from advancing the cause of peace, contributes directly toward the perpetuation of the conflict.”

“HITLER” HOPING FOR SEAT IN PALESTINIAN PARLIAMENT

Also on the Fatah list is Jamal Abu Roub, 40, widely known by Palestinians as “Hitler,” the nickname he adopted for himself.

Roub, the leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Jenin, is virtually assured of a seat in the Palestinian parliament. He has been given the No.12 position on Fatah’s list of parliamentary candidates. For more on Roub, please see BBC sanctions reporter who cried for Arafat (& “Hitler” running in Fatah primaries) (Nov. 28, 2005.)

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a part of Fatah, has in recent months caused daily chaos in the Gaza Strip, kidnapping foreigners and occupying government buildings, supposedly to demand better jobs.

HAS HAMAS CHANGED?

Over the last week, some prominent western news outlets have reported that Hamas has moderated. They have failed to report, for example, the Hamas election advertisement shown on Palestinian TV on January 17, 2006 that proclaimed: “We do not recognize the Israeli enemy, nor his right to be our neighbor, nor to stay [on the land], nor his ownership of any inch of land. Therefore, we do not see [Israel] as an ally, not in policy, not in security, not in economy and not in any form of cooperation. Israel is an enemy who is interested in uprooting us.”

The Hamas’ charter clearly states that “it strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine... Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will eliminate it.” (Article 6)

Article 13 states: “There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad. The initiatives, proposals and International Conferences are but a waste of time.”

In addition, Hamas leaders have made no secret of their objectives. For example, Abd Al-Aziz Rantissi stated “We will not leave one Jew in Palestine” (Al-Jazeera Television, September 30, 2003).

HAMAS’ $180,000 SPIN DOCTOR

Support for Hamas is partly based upon its charity network and anti-corruption credentials. Its vow to eliminate Israel does not appear in its election manifesto, but in interviews and at rallies Hamas officials have repeatedly emphasized that this has not changed. Hamas has placed much emphasis on its image at these elections, as illustrated by the article from The Guardian, attached below. Hamas has paid a spin doctor, Nashat Aqtash, $180,000 to persuade Europeans and Americans that it is not a group of religious fanatics who relish suicide bombings and hate Jews.

Many people in the region believe that following a strong showing in these elections, Hamas will change its present stance towards Israel. Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, said at the weekend “We believe that Hamas joining the political process will lead to a fundamental change in its thinking and its premises.”

An Israeli army official was quoted in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz saying that Hamas was likely to refrain from major terror attacks following the elections in a bid to shore up its political legitimacy. The unnamed army official added that Hamas was likely to reassess its options after the Israeli elections in March.

Yet last week Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was one of 10 senior Palestinian terrorists to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Damascus. (For more on Ahmadinejad, see Israel receives surprisingly strong international support over Ahmadinejad comments, Nov. 1, 2005.)

A Jerusalem District Court has ordered Hamas to pay almost 100 million shekels to the survivors of a family who were murdered by Hamas terrorists. Four members of the Gavish family (including Rachel Gavish who I mentioned in The Forgotten Rachels) were killed in their home in Elon Moreh in 2002 during the Passover holiday.

A member of Hamas was arrested yesterday night under suspicion of planning the abduction of Israeli citizen Sasson Nuriel, who was kidnapped and brutally murdered in September 2005. (See the dispatch Synagogue to become Hamas museum (& “an Islamic guide on how to beat your wife.”)

HAMAS’ PROSPECTS MAY BE HARMED BY FATWA

The Islamic Liberation Party has issued a fatwa saying it is illegal to vote in the upcoming elections according to the Islamic religion. Many members of the ILP are also Hamas members.

The ILP claims that the elections are taking place as a result of the Oslo agreements that gave up “sections of Palestine”. They also claimed that the elections are “part of a colonialist game” pushed by George W. Bush.

OLMERT: NO NEED TO VOICE AN OPINION

In the weekly Israeli cabinet meeting on Sunday, acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declined to discuss the Palestinian elections, saying it could be interpreted as having influence on the elections.

Olmert remarked, “There is no need to voice an opinion on the eve of elections. We will hold a discussion following elections and decide then what to do and how.”

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also briefed the cabinet and said that Israeli security forces were prepared for the possibility of a large-scale terror attack on Palestinian election day.

And Internal Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi commented at the meeting that “if Hamas takes over the Palestinian Authority, this would be tragic for the Palestinians, in terms of their international status and their ability to maintain relations with Israel.”

Shimon Peres hinted last week that Israel could speak to Hamas if it gives up terrorism. He told Israel Radio: “We will not sit with anybody who comes to negotiations with a gun or a bomb,” but then added “We are not fighting against a name. We are fighting against a situation. If the situation changes, then what difference does a name make.”

U.S. FUNDING FOR PA ELECTION CAMPAIGN

The Washington Post reported on Sunday that “The Bush administration is spending foreign aid money to increase the popularity of the Palestinian Authority on the eve of crucial elections in which the governing party faces a serious challenge from the radical Islamic group Hamas.”

Approximately $2 million have been spent on about 40 small, popular events to increase the popularity of the present Palestinian government. The U.S. classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization and according to the Washington Post fears “a large Hamas presence in the 132-seat (Palestinian) legislature.”

The money was distributed by USAID and included donating computers to community centers and sponsoring a national soccer tournament.

The Washington Post continued: “Arabic-language papers have been filled with U.S.-funded advertisements announcing the events in the name of the Palestinian Authority, which the public closely identifies with Fatah.” A U.S. official quoted in the article said “I’m not going to apologize for it. I’m proud of the work we’ve done.”

WESTERN LEADERS PREPARE FOR HAMAS

Both the U.S. and the European Union have been scrambling to deal with a potential Hamas victory. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that “The United States won’t change its policies toward Hamas it’s hard to have negotiations with a party that you do not recognize its right to exist.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair commented in a monthly news conference “it is very difficult for us to be in the position of negotiating or talking to Hamas unless there’s a very clear renunciation of terrorism.”

I attach four articles below, including analyses of Palestinian women running for election, Abbas’s corruption, and Hamas’s attempt to deliver a moderate message for western ears. (Please note that the first article, from The Guardian, contains inaccurate statements by Hamas which go unchallenged by The Guardian correspondent.)

-- Tom Gross



FULL ARTICLES

“DID I MAKE YOU THINK DIFFERENTLY ABOUT HAMAS? ”

New-look Hamas spends 100k on an image makeover
Spin doctor admits he has ‘work cut out’ with group known for suicide attacks
By Chris McGreal
The Guardian
January 20, 2006

www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,2763,1690610,00.html?gusrc=rss

Hamas is paying a spin doctor $180,000 (100,000) to persuade Europeans and Americans that it is not a group of religious fanatics who relish suicide bombings and hate Jews.

The organisation, also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, has hired a media consultant, Nashat Aqtash, to improve its image at home and abroad because it expects to emerge from next week’s Palestinian general election as a major political force, and wants recognition and acceptance by the US and EU.

“Hamas has an image problem. The Israelis were able to create a very bad image of the Palestinians in general and particularly Muslims and Hamas. My contract is to project the right image,” said Mr Aqtash, who also teaches media at Birzeit University in Ramallah.

“We don’t need the international community to accept Hamas ideology, we need it to accept the facts on the ground. We are not killing people because we love to kill. People view Hamas as loving sending people to die. We don’t love death, we like life.”

Mr Aqtash, who describes himself as opposed to violence and “believing in the Gandhi route”, has advised Hamas leaders to change their image by explaining that they do not hate Israelis because they are Jews. And he is attempting to persuade influential foreigners that Hamas is essentially a peaceful organisation that was forced to fight, but is now committed to pressing its cause through politics, not violence.

“Hamas does not believe in terrorism or killing civilians. But Ariel Sharon pressed buttons to make people angry. Sometimes we are innocent enough to react in a way that the Israelis use the reaction against us,” he said.

Next week Mr Aqtash says he will address the former US president Jimmy Carter and former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, and other prominent foreigners monitoring the election. But he admits he and his small team working from an office in Ramallah have their work cut out. Hamas is responsible for scores of suicide bombings, killing and maiming hundreds of civilians (many of them children), although not for yesterday’s attack in Tel Aviv.

Hamas’s founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel and it wants to impose an Islamic state on all Palestinian territory.

Mr Aqtash, who says he is not a member of Hamas and does not know where it got the money to pay him but frequently refers to the group as “we”, says he has told the leadership it has to change its rhetoric. He says Hamas has not helped itself by celebrating suicide bombings; he advises against celebration. And he has told Hamas leaders not to talk about destroying Israel.

“Abdel Aziz Rantisi [the former Hamas leader killed by Israel two years ago] was on television saying things that foreigners cannot accept, like we will remove Israel from the map. He should have talked about Palestinian suffering. He should have said we need this occupation ended. Foreigners will accept this,” he said.

Mr Aqtash has also advised Hamas leaders to emphasise that they are not anti-semitic or against Israelis because they are Jews. Hamas has taken the message on board. In an interview earlier this week, Muhammad Abu Tir, who is second on the Hamas election list, twice (and unprompted) offered an assurance that he is not a Jew hater.

“Loving others is part of our religion. We are not against Jews as Jews, we are against oppression,” he said.

Mr Aqtash also told Mr Abu Tir to rid himself of a red beard, coloured by henna, because it makes people laugh.

The PR man wriggles away from questions about whether Hamas has more than an image problem when it sends bombers on buses and into cafes.

“I’m personally against killing. All civilians should not be killed. Killing Israeli civilians is not accepted by the international community. They think it is a terrorist act,” he said.

“But Sharon was responsible for killing civilians too. During this intifada Hamas killed a thousand Israelis, some of them civilians, some of them soldiers. But the Israelis killed 4,000 Palestinians. It’s a war. The Israelis use F16s; Hamas uses people. Anyway, Hamas hasn’t sent a suicide bomber in a year.”

Hamas is also attempting to soften its image at home with the launch of a television station in Gaza that includes a children’s show presented by “Uncle Hazim” and men in furry animal suits. The station, named Al Aqsa Television after Islam’s third holiest site, says it intends to put across the group’s message “but without getting into the tanks, the guns, the killing and the blood”. It will instead focus on religious readings, discussion programmes and a talent show.

Mr Aqtash, however, is not entirely confident in his powers of persuasion.

“How did I do?” he asked as the interview ended. “Did I make you think differently about Hamas?”

HELPFUL HINTS

The advice Nashat Aqtash gave to Hamas:

Say you are not against Israelis as Jews
Don’t talk about destroying Israel
Do talk about Palestinian suffering
Don’t celebrate killing people
Change beard color (if red)

 

85 WOMEN RUNNING IN PALESTINIAN ELECTIONS

85 women run for Palestinian elections
AFP (Agence France Presse)
The Peninsula (An English language daily published in Qatar)
January 23, 2006

www.thepeninsulaqatar.com/Display_news.asp?section=World_News&subsection=Gulf%2C+Middle+East+%26+Africa&month=January2006&file=World_News2006012322049.xml

“The assassination of my husband gave me the strength to dedicate myself to politics,” says Hamas candidate Muna Mansur, who is one of 85 women hoping to win a parliamentary seat in Wednesday’s elections.

Her husband Jamal, one of the radical movement’s leaders in the West Bank, was killed four years ago during an Israeli air strike on the northern West Bank city of Nablus.

“The only thing which would make me pull out of political life would be if he himself were a candidate, out of respect,” she says.

Through the white veil which hides all of her face save her eyes and mouth, Mansur, a 44-year-old physics teacher and mother of five, explains that the Koran leaves no doubt about “a woman’s right to be a (political) candidate”.

And her face doesn’t lose a shred of its gentleness as she speaks about the armed fight against Israel.

“Is there any other way? I believe in peace but in a just peace,” she explains. “Israel kills those close to us and says afterwards that it is us who are violent. They don’t give us any other option.”

In the outgoing Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament), only five of the 88 seats were held by women. But following Wednesday’s vote, the parliament is to increase its number of seats to 132, and under a new quota system the number of women deputies will rise to at least 13.

Women running for office in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are keen to show that “the intifada was not just a man’s game, nor is politics,” Mansur says.

However, with a total of 728 candidates in the running, the idea that all 85 women will win seats appears “a little ridiculous,” she admits.

The women running come from a broad spectrum of social and educational backgrounds.

They are mothers, lawyers, teachers, human rights activists and former political prisoners, and what they all have in common is that they live in a society where women “suffer on two levels,” explains Hanan Ashrawi, a former independent MP in the outgoing parliament who is now running for the Third Way party.

“Palestinian women are victims of the intifada just like the rest of the people and at the same time, are discriminated against at home by virtue of (male) chauvinistic laws despite the fact that in many cases, they carry the burden of the family alone,” Ashrawi says.

In Ashrawi’s words, this is a “crucial” moment because from now on, Palestinian women will be able to fight “from inside” the parliament to defend their rights and to change laws.

 

“ISRAEL AND AMERICA SAID ‘NO’ TO HAMAS. WHAT DO YOU SAY?”

Palestinians urged to vote for God or Arafat
By Mohammed Assadi
Reuters
January 20, 2006

“We urge you to vote for Yasser Arafat’s blood,” says the text message from Fatah activists, referring to the late Palestinian leader.

“Let’s vote for the green crescent,” says the message sent by Hamas Islamists. “Forward this message and you will be blessed by God.”

Dial the Palestinian phone directory enquiry service and you first hear a pre-recorded spiel from one party or the other ahead of the January 25 parliamentary election, in which President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faces a strong challenge from Hamas.

Pictures of candidates are glued at every corner “only the eyes peep out of some Hamas women contestants. Banners drift from electricity poles. Newspapers are filled with costly adverts proclaiming vows to fight corruption.

“This is a fatal battle and we should be well prepared,” said Ziyad Abu Ein, an official of the ruling Fatah.

The contest between Hamas and Fatah has made this the most open election ever for Palestinians, who already see greater democracy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip than exists in much of the Middle East. The last parliamentary vote was in 1996.

“The first Palestinian election was more or less like the other Arab elections. This one is different,” said Palestinian commentator Ali Jarbawi. “There was only one major party, Fatah, and then much smaller parties that did not irritate Fatah. Now Hamas is a strong movement.”

Hamas has grown in popularity as much for its anti-corruption credentials and charity network as for its suicide bombing campaign and vow to destroy Israel.

The unwieldy Fatah movement has been weakened since Arafat died in 2004 by a struggle between an old guard accused of graft and younger leaders and gunmen seeking greater power.

CHOICE

“Before there was only one dominant party. Today there is a competition over serving the people regardless of who wins,” said Abu Hassan at a shopping center in Gaza City.

Hamas did not take part in 1996 because it rejected interim accords with Israel. It says those are now dead and hopes for a bigger political say.

Arafat, whose iconic appeal plays a big role in the Fatah campaign, ruled with a much sterner hand than Abbas and resisted calls from Western donors for long delayed elections after a five-year-old uprising brought new violence with Israel.

For Abbas, the election is a chance to strengthen his own hold while also bringing Hamas to the political mainstream. He hopes that may allow him to push the militants to disarm under a U.S.-backed peace plan though so far they refuse.

But some Fatah veterans would still like to delay the vote, sensing they are certain to lose out. Fatah and allied independents won 68 out of 88 seats in the last election.

Though Western donors are wary of a Hamas win, they are also keen to see the election go ahead smoothly as a way of strengthening Palestinian democracy “already more open than many in a region not always noted for political freedom.

A survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit late last year put the Palestinians fifth on an index of 20 Middle Eastern countries ranked according to political and civil liberty. The top four were Israel, Lebanon, Morocco and Iraq.

Israel has objected to Hamas taking part, but does not want to be seen as blocking the ballot. It said it would allow voting in Arab East Jerusalem and Israeli sources said troops in the occupied West Bank would aim to avoid disruption.

For Hamas, Israel’s opposition is just another electoral card.

“Israel and America said ‘No’ to Hamas. What do you say?” reads a giant banner above a Ramallah street.

 

“ABBAS HAS FAILED AND WE WANT HIM OUT OF THE JOB”

Hamas votes set to sweep Abbas away
By Uzi Mahnaimi
The Sunday Times (of London)
January 22, 2006

www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2089-2003777,00.html

A surge in support for the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas in the run-up to Wednesday’s parliamentary elections is fuelling calls for Mahmoud Abbas, the 70-year-old Palestinian president, to step down after the vote.

Dissatisfaction is growing in the ranks of Abbas’s Fatah party at his lacklustre performance since he was elected leader last January. Polls yesterday showed Hamas had closed the gap with Fatah and was trailing only 42%-45%, making the final result too close to call.

Even if Fatah manages to hold its lead, Hamas will be guaranteed a role in the Palestinian parliament for the first time and may be part of the next government. “Abbas has failed and we want him out of the job,” said a young Fatah leader. Members of the 60,000 strong Palestinian security forces began voting yesterday.

Many of the president’s critics would like to see Abbas replaced by Marwan Barghouti, 48, who has emerged as leader of a faction known as the Young Guard. He directs it from a high security prison cell in Israel’s Negev desert where he is serving five life sentences for murder.

Barghouti heads Fatah’s national list of candidates, making his own election a certainty. His inability to attend parliament has not stopped him calling Palestinians from the jail, urging them to back Fatah.

There were indications, meanwhile, that Hamas may be softening its stance on Israel: Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister whose government has had close contact with Palestinian militant groups, said yesterday the group recognised Israel’s existence and predicted joining the political process would lead to fundamental changes in its thinking.

Hamas has been going from strength to strength thanks to a campaign focused on social and economic rather than religious issues. “Hamas is regarded as a movement with clean hands and as such appeals also to non-Muslim voters,” said Dr Menahem Klein, a leading Israeli authority on Palestinian society.

With Abbas’s standing in decline, photographs of the jailed Barghouti were plastered all over the West Bank this week. “He’s our leader,” said Ilham Bilbesy, a 19-year-old student in East Jerusalem. “I’ll vote for him because he’s a fighter. He is not corrupt and he will be our president.”

Abbas, who appears to have reconciled himself to sharing power with Hamas, admitted last week that his days in office might be numbered. “If I’m unable to implement my policy, I’ll resign,” he told Palestinian journalists in the West Bank.

The decision about whether to stay or go might not be entirely left to Abbas. He was forced last week to deny a report in an Israeli newspaper that he was suffering from clinical depression.

“Our president is a total failure,” said one Fatah supporter. “How can he seriously rule an emerging state like Palestine if on Fridays (the Muslim day of rest) he puts on a white robe and plays with his grandchildren in his Ramallah residence?” When Yasser Arafat died in 2004, Abbas, a long-time associate and former prime minister, was seen by many as an interim leader. Instead he won the presidency. He has since presided over rampant corruption and an administration seen as a shambles.

Under one scenario being discussed by Barghouti’s supporters, he would be appointed prime minister after the election but the job would be done in his absence by Salam Fayad, a highly respected American-educated former finance minister.

A senior source from Shin Bet, the internal Israeli security service, hinted that Israel might then be interested in releasing Barghouti, provided it could find a way of surmounting the legal and moral obstacles to freeing a convicted murderer.

“It’s clearly in Israel’s interests,” the source said. “Abbas can’t deliver, as we have seen, and Barghouti is the only one who can do it.” The Syrian president Bashar al-Assad accused Israel yesterday of having assassinated Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader who died of an unspecified illness 14 months ago. He gave no evidence to back his claim.


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.