Bombs vs. ballots

Its leaders are talking like politicians -- and Hamas could win big in historic Palestinian elections.

Published January 25, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

Sheikh Mohammed Abu Tir would never have imagined that he would feel grateful to the Israelis. They arrested him in Jerusalem early last week, when he campaigned near the Damascus Gate, despite an Israeli ban on such activities. First they interrogated him, and then they stuck him in a cell, where he spent the night sleeping on a bare floor, covered only with his coat.

Abu Tir is still wearing the same gray coat as he sits in his living room a few days later and talks about his night in prison. His house is in Umm Tuba, a low-income district of Jerusalem where an icy wind blows through the narrow streets at this time of the year. He's been practically overwhelmed with visitors since images on TV transformed him into a minor celebrity. "The Israelis are stupid," he says, smiling, sipping his coffee. "They helped us a great deal."

Without his trademark bright red beard, which he dyes with henna ("like the Prophet Mohammed," the sheikh says quietly), this thin, darkly clothed and bespectacled man wouldn't stand out from other Islamic politicians.

But Abu Tir, 54, has become a symbol of the Palestinian election campaign, both because he is one of the candidates representing the Islamist Hamas movement, which will take part in parliamentary elections for the first time, and because he defied Israel's ban on Hamas appearances in Jerusalem.

When 1.3 million Palestinians go to the polls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip Wednesday, 400 candidates will be vying for 132 seats in parliament. While President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party stands to suffer significant losses, opinion polls suggest that Hamas can expect about 35 percent of the vote. But despite Hamas' popularity, the participation in the election by the organization, which is responsible for countless terrorist attacks on civilians and whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, is the subject of worldwide controversy.

Hamas is on the U.S. government's list of terrorist organizations. The European Union hasn't decided yet whether it will continue to pay millions of euros in aid money to the Palestinian Autonomous Authority if representatives of Hamas enter parliament or possibly even become cabinet members. E.U. chief diplomat Javier Solana has already warned that it would be very difficult "to further provide financing for the activities of the Autonomous Authority if Hamas continues to play a negative role in the future and fails to renounce violence."

Hamas has taken a decidedly pragmatic approach -- for now. Even more radical groups, Islamic Jihad, for example, have claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings of recent months. The Palestinian opposition has also taken pains to tone down its rhetoric. In contrast to the Hamas charter, the organization's campaign platform makes no mention of destroying Israel.

The Islamists' strategists know all too well that the majority of Palestinians have long since accepted a two-state solution. According to a survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, 79 percent of Palestinians are in favor of resuming negotiations with the Israelis.

Like his party, candidate Abu Tir has also become all too familiar with the pressures of reality, and last week he received his first lesson in exactly what that means. "We will negotiate better than the others," he said in an interview with Israeli daily Haaretz, a statement many promptly interpreted as a recognition of Israel's right to exist. But four days later the candidate suddenly seemed to be backpedaling. "They misquoted me," he is now saying. Abu Tir, who has spent half his life in Israeli prisons, is catching on quickly when it comes to the intricacies of electioneering.

Suddenly his responses have become open to interpretation. Negotiations with Israel? "The question will not arise before the election," he says. Will Hamas abandon its armed struggle? "We will build our state with one hand and resist with the other." Will Hamas lay down its weapons? "First let's see how the election turns out."

Abu Tir is taking a laid-back approach now that election day is at hand. As the No. 2 man on Hamas' election list, he is guaranteed a seat in parliament.

Campaign posters begin to accumulate along the roadside as one approaches downtown Ramallah. In one poster, President Mahmoud Abbas' ruling Fatah Party is using an image that shows deceased PLO founder Yasser Arafat holding up a photograph of Marwan Barghouti, the leader of the second intifada, who is now imprisoned in Israel. "That says a lot about the state of Fatah," says a young Palestinian woman derisively as she walks by. "One is dead, the other one is in prison."

Hassan Abu Libdah's official car, a blue metallic BMW 5 series, is parked in front of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. Libdah, the minister of labor, will only remain in office until the election. After spending three decades devoting himself to his party, Fatah, he says he is fed up.

"Fatah isn't a real party," says Abu Libdah. "It's still ruled by the old guard," which, he says, has failed to transfer its power to the younger generation. "They know nothing about election campaigns," Libdah says with resignation, adding that the Islamists are experts in playing the political game and that they're even more pragmatic than Fatah these days. Even when Israel announced that Palestinians living in East Jerusalem would be barred from voting, Hamas insisted on keeping the election on track. "See how pragmatic Hamas is," says a mocking Abu Libdah, "they're even willing to go ahead without Jerusalem!"

A few blocks away, Ammar Dwaik, 33, sinks into his office chair after a long work day. As head of the Palestinian Election Commission, Dwaik, a lawyer, bears a heavy burden of responsibility. It's his job to ensure that everything proceeds in accordance with the rule of law.

After the establishment of the Autonomous Authority, Dwaik served for three years as a police officer in Ramallah. He still clearly remembers the first parliamentary election in 1996. "Everyone is excited when they vote for the first time. It turns into a sort of festival, and voters are willing to look the other way if there's an irregularity or two," says Dwaik.

But the history of democracies, he says, shows that a second election is often the one that determines the fate of a country. "Now we have real political competition for the first time," he says. Unlike other Arab countries, whose parliaments have little influence, power is a big issue in the Palestinian parliamentary election. "This election is a test for us Palestinians," says Dwaik. Indeed, it's a test that will reveal whether they are truly ready to govern their own state.

In recent weeks, the Autonomous Authority's chief election monitor has repeatedly observed how difficult it is for the parties to follow democratic rules. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights has put together an entire list of violations of election law. Hamas, for example, set up a TV transmitter to broadcast its campaign ads in a mosque, even though campaigning in houses of worship and public buildings is prohibited. Not to be undone, the ruling Fatah Party has used the Web sites of various ministries to introduce its own candidates.

Dwaik doesn't bother to intervene when the offenses are this minor. After all, it would suggest interference if the organization charged with counting the votes were to reprimand any of the parties shortly before the election. Indeed, Dwaik has only filed a public objection once.

About three weeks ago, he received a copy of a letter a police officer had written to his subordinates, demanding that they vote for the Fatah Party. The letter also stated that Interior Minister Nassir Yussuf had requested that police officers and their wives vote at their barracks. But this would have subjected them to intimidation by their superiors, almost all of whom are members of Fatah.

When Dwaik and his commission threatened to resign, the government withdrew its plans. Although Dwaik doesn't say it directly, it's obvious that he expects more trouble from Fatah. "Because the opposition is taking part for the first time, it can only win," he says. "But the ruling party has a lot to lose."

The chief vote counter is worried that militant Palestinians could turn him into a scapegoat on election day. Last year, radicals blamed the election committee for their party's poor performance. When the ruling party was forced to give up its control over several communities in the Gaza Strip following communal elections, armed Fatah supporters stormed the election commission's offices.

But this time Ammar Dwaik has taken precautions. Closed-circuit television cameras have been installed throughout the commission's building. A metal gate in the stairwell blocks access to the commission's offices, where Dwaik plans to barricade himself on election day, and where he'll likely hope, perhaps a little fearfully, that his people will truly pass the great test of democracy.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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By Christoph Schult

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