MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block. The Islamist group Hamas appears headed for a strong showing in today's Palestinian elections. Turnout was high and unofficial exit polls show Hamas winning nearly as many seats as the ruling Fatah party. Western and Arab election observers say voting went relatively smoothly across the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem, with only minor scuffles and few violations reported.
Coming up, we'll talk about how the U.S. might deal with a government that includes Hamas. First, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Gaza.
ERIC WESTERVELT: In theory, campaigning today was forbidden, especially at voting spots. But at polling sites across the Palestinian territories, voters had to wade through supporters from all parties, passing out pamphlets, voter cards and stickers.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING, PEOPLE SHOUTING AND SINGING, CLAPPING)
WESTERVELT: In Gaza City, boys backing Fatah sang, Vote for Fatah, mother of the people. Hamas supporters nearby chanted and waved big green Hamas flags. Fatah, for now, still controls the Palestinian Authority, but this first parliamentary vote in a decade also marked the first time Palestinians had a real choice. Mohammed Ibrahim (ph) took his 12-year-old son Abdullah(ph) with him for the historic vote.
MOHAMMED IBRAHIM: (Through Translator) I brought him for (unintelligible) to learn him what is democracy, to grow up knowing what is democracy, to be aware of his right in democratic state.
WESTERVELT: Ibrahim said he's not a committed supporter of Hamas, the Islamist militants Israel, the U.S. and much of Europe see as a terrorist organization. But Ibrahim said he hopes to shake things up with his vote for Hamas.
IBRAHIM: (Through Translator) But only for the sake of change, so that he hears something different, the Hamas and all the other parties. We have to see the competition, democratic, in the (unintelligible).
WESTERVELT: Hamas is banking on fed up voters like Ibrahim to join with their more hard core base of support among conservative, fundamentalist Muslims such as Wala Atar (ph). A student, Atar wears a green Hamas baseball cap atop her full-length, face-covering black hijab.
WALA ATAR: (Through Translator) Hamas is going on the direction of the Islam, the demands of God. She is the right direction. And she's the side we did resist all the time. And she is the power here.
WESTERVELT: Fatah lost ground to Hamas amid charges millions in aid money was misspent at best and stolen at worst by Fatah's old guard, the founders of the movement for a Palestinian state who many charge became jaded and out of touch. Hamas, in turn, counts its efficient use of limited funds for healthcare and other charities.
42 year old Samir Musharawi(ph) is part of a younger generation of Fatah activists rising to power in the post-Arafat era. Near a polling station in Gaza City today, Musharawi acknowledged Fatah's leaders struggled to address charges they were complacent and corrupt. But Musharawi warns Hamas that governing isn't as easy as being in the opposition.
SAMIR MUSHARAWI: (Through Translator) We went to the people and admit our mistakes and apologize. We know how to overcome it, and we are moving in the right direction. Governing is more than slogans. It is a big responsibility, and a big challenge. And Fatah is the only realistic moderate movement that's able to carry this weight.
WESTERVELT: But after today, Fatah may have to share that governing weight with Hamas, the group the west and Israel have been pressuring the Palestinian Authority for months to disarm. After five years of the second Intifada uprising against Israel, the Palestinian economy is in ruins. Unemployment is soaring. Armed factions in Gaza are vying for jobs and power. The Abuhatas (ph), Komel (ph) and Wahad (ph), stopped by Fatah today. We hope we made the right choice, Komel says, to help the people who are suffering.
KOMEL ABUHATAS: (Through Translator) To reform the country, to (unintelligible), to find jobs for people, to have a better situation.
WESTERVELT: Marwan Kanafani, a former top advisor to Yasser Arafat, ran for parliament as an independent. Taking in the scene just outside his polling site, Kanafani said after today, a Fatah-Hamas power-sharing alliance may be the only option.
MARWAN KANAFANI: That's the only way it's going to be. I don't think any of them will get the majority. So there will be a kind of coalition. It's going to be new, to the system, to the people and to everybody.
WESTERVELT: And new to Israel and the west, which may now have to deal with a Palestinian parliament that includes major representation from a group they see as an unabashed terrorist organization.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Gaza.
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