Hamas' Political Clout Grows

The West Bank town of Qalqiliya, on the border with Israel, has a new municipal council. They are all members of the Islamist group Hamas, who swept to victory in local elections earlier this month. Hamas is one of Israel's most implacable enemies and its military wing has been responsible for some of the most devastating attacks on Israelis over the past five years.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The West Bank town of Qalqilya, astride the border with Israel, has a new municipal council. The council members were sworn into office this week. They are from the Islamist group Hamas. Hamas swept a victory in local elections earlier this month. It is one of Israel's most implacable enemies. Its military wing has been responsible for some of the most devastating attacks on Israelis over the past five years. NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to Qalqilya for this report.

(Soundbite of crowd)

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

The inauguration of the town council highlighted the most sweeping electoral endorsement of Hamas on the West Bank to date. Amity flowed through the crowded chamber, as did strains of Koranic recitation.

(Soundbite of chanting)

McCARTHY: The Koran featured prominently in the ceremony. Outgoing officials presented the town's new Islamist governors with a new copy as a gift. Incoming Deputy Mayor Hashem al-Masri told the assembled, `Our service is first to the Koran and then to the townspeople.' The new mayor was inaugurated in absentia. He's been in Israeli military detention since August 2002. Fatah, the political umbrella of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, was swept aside by the Hamas victory here and is scrambling to stem further losses in an upcoming parliamentary election. Deputy Mayor Masri, a pharmacist, assured the audience that Hamas would cooperate with all Palestinian institutions, Fatah included.

Deputy Mayor HASHEM AL-MASRI (Qalqilya): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: There was no such public enthusiasm for working with Israel. Rather, Masri assailed Israel for the barrier it is building in and around the West Bank. Israel says the construction has stopped terrorist attacks and saved Israeli lives. Residents of Qalqilya say the barrier has devastated theirs. It virtually encircles the city of 43,000, with the view looking west toward Israel now completely blocked by a concrete wall eight meters high. Local officials say the enclosure has crippled economic activity. Israel recently removed military roadblocks in and out of the city to free up movement. But residents say the barrier still makes the town feel like a prison. Deputy Mayor Masri inveighed against it.

Deputy Mayor MASRI: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `That apartheid wall,' the deputy mayor said, `is being built on the land of Qalqilya.' And he warned that Israel would pay a heavy price for it. But in an interview afterwards, out of earshot of his audience, Masri sounded more willing to bend his ideology to have some sort of relationship with Israel. Israeli and Qalqilya representatives acknowledged the need to coordinate water usage, pollution control and access to Palestinian farmland that's been cut off by the Israeli barrier. A young new Hamas city councilman, Mustaf Asabri(ph), struck a pragmatic note about working with Israel.

Mr. MUSTAF ASABRI (Hamas City Councilman): (Through Translator) We do not have any problem dealing with the Israelis in any service sector. They are the ones that have the problem. They are they ones that have the worries. We will cooperate with everybody, because our strategy is a service strategy and not a political strategy.

McCARTHY: The office that coordinates Israeli government activity in the occupied territories says its representative will meet with Hamas local authorities if they ask, because, spokesman Shlomo Dror says, the citizens deserve to be helped, but Dror adds, Israel will not deal with any official tied to what he terms terror. Israeli officials also expressed concern that cooperating with new Hamas-led municipal councils could strengthen the Islamist group.

(Soundbite of chickens)

McCARTHY: In Qalqilya, support for Hamas is easy to find. On the all but lifeless streets, Nadal Taha(ph) sits with a friend who sells chickens. The Qalqilya mechanic says Hamas' network of social services and a corruption-free reputation made it popular. In addition, Taha says even the Israeli occupation was better than the Palestinian Authority-appointed Fatah members who previously governed here.

Mr. NADAL TAHA (Mechanic): (Through Translator) How do you expect me to vote for them when, for the last seven years, I had a shop with no water, no electricity, because I could not manage to get them to connect me to water or electricity? Life was definitely much better before. We were under military occupation, but it is nothing compared to the occupation of the PA and Fatah.

McCARTHY: Newly installed Qalqilya Councilor Yasser Hamad(ph) says Israel, Fatah and the United States must acknowledge that Hamas, with its solid electoral gains, is now part of what he calls the Palestinian political mainstream.

Mr. YASSER HAMAD (Qalqilya Councilor): (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: `If the US cares about the democratic process,' Hamad says, `it must find a way to open dialogue with those the Palestinian people have chosen as their representatives.' Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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