Campaigning Ends in Palestinian Elections

A Palestinian boy waves in West Bank's Manara square i i

A Palestinian boy waves in West Bank's Manara square, which is filled with flags and campaign posters, Jan. 23. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
A Palestinian boy waves in West Bank's Manara square

A Palestinian boy waves in West Bank's Manara square, which is filled with flags and campaign posters, Jan. 23.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Campaigning for this week's Palestinian parliamentary elections officially ended Monday. Opinion polls show many Palestinians are fed up with the ruling Fatah movement, and the militant Islamist group Hamas is expected to make a strong showing in Wednesday's voting.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. In this segment, a look at this week's Palestinian Parliamentary elections. Campaigning ended today in the West Bank and Gaza and there are growing indications that the Islamist militant group Hamas is going to make a strong showing in Wednesday's vote. In a few minutes, we'll hear how the election looks to the Palestinian businessman we've been following.

First, NPR's Eric Westervelt has this report on the campaign for Hamas in Gaza city.

ERIC WESTERVELT: At campaign rallies elsewhere in the Palestinian territories, Hamas has tried to highlight a softer image of Islamist militancy: middle-aged professionals who say they are running for Parliament to clean up corruption and misrule, but on the eve of elections in what it called liberated Gaza, Hamas is playing to its hardcore base.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMAS RALLY)

WESTERVELT: Some 5,000 Hamas supporters at a Gaza City rally cheer as militant teens in full camouflage battle gear propel off of five story homes and swoop down on ropes into the crowd. These kids, Jahadi Boy Scouts, Hamas style, then pump their fists before leaping through hoops of fire. Abdul Hamed Isling (ph) is one of thousands of Hamas supporters here. The 23-year old student at Gaza's Islamic University says the ruling Fatah movement had its chance to lead and failed.

ABDUL HAMED ISLING: Fata has been proved (unintelligible) achieved nothing for the Palestinian people. It's a failure, it's corrupted and dirty and we don't need it.

WESTERVELT: Hamas candidates then offer up fiery speeches highlighting a platform they say lives up to their slogan, change and reform. To the crowds delight, Hamas's senior leader Mahmoud Zahar says Hamas will not talk or cooperate with Israel.

MAHMOUD ZAHAR: (Through translator) The enemy is not the partner, he is not a neighbor, or an ally. We will not cooperate with him in politics. We will not cooperate with security issues and we will not cooperate with him in economics.

WESTERVELT: It's that kind of strident talk that alarms Israeli officials and many in the West who say they see no sign Hamas is evolved from a terrorist organization to a populist political party. In an interview with NPR at his home in Gaza City, Hamas leader Zahar called the Oslo Agreements and the U.S. backed roadmap peace process, quote, "dead bodies in the garbage that are beginning to stink." He says negotiations have failed to achieve a Palestinian state.

ZAHAR: With Israelis talking and talking the negotiations have finally reached to this situation. Where is the state? These people are big liar. They are not telling us the truth. They are wasting our time.

WESTERVELT: For the last eleven months, Hamas has abided by a cease-fire negotiated between Israel and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, but Zahar dodges a question about maintaining the truce after the elections. Hamas will only talk with Israel about a long-term truce, Zahar says, if Israel returns all the land captured during the '67 war, releases all Palestinian prisoners, and other conditions Israeli officials would find totally unacceptable.

In fact, Zahar says, if elected, Hamas will place its armed wing, the Kasam (ph) Brigades along the Gaza border with Israel to protect our lands, he says. Asked if such a move wouldn't provoke a larger conflict, Zahar changes the subject. He lashes out at what he says is America's phony effort to promote democracy in the Middle East.

ZAHAR: America, which is committing big crimes in Afghanistan and in Iraq and encouraging the crimes of Israel against the Palestinian people. What type of democracy do you speak about?

WESTERVELT: Hamas's rival, the Fatah Movement that for now controls the Palestinian authority, is on the verge of bankruptcy and remains weakened by charges of corruption, cronyism, and mismanagement. Continued lawlessness since Israel's Gaza withdrawal has only worsened Fatah's image.

Twenty-three year old Talpha Zabaed (ph) underscores the challenge Fatah faces. He works for the National Security Service, a Fatah-dominated police force, and he says he is fed up with a lack of security. Zabaed says he won't be voting. It's his protest against dead end life in Gaza.

TALPHA ZABAED: When you see some people are crossing the street, shooting at each other, you might be shot or killed while you don't know why it is happening. Of course, it's not only that you lose hope, you see everything in black.

WESTERVELT: Fatah still has a solid, if declining, base of support here even if these days some of that support is based on fear of what a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip might look like.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.

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