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Yasser Arafat's local election gambit

Fighting may be raging all around, but Taleb Hamed has his mind set on elections. He is striving to become mayor of Silwad, a small West Bank town near Ramallah that is taking part in a ballot-box gambit by the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Mr. Hamed, a young, soft-spoken former Hamas activist, is one of dozens of potential new leaders starting to emerge as the PA organizes the first local elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1976. Registration for the elections was due to close Wednesday and the first round of polling is slated for Dec. 9. [Editor's note: Our original story said that Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza strip in 1976. Israel actually occupied these area after the Six Day War in 1967. Our story meant to say that the local election being planned in the West Bank and Gaza are the first since 1976.]

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Among Hamed's goals: getting the PA to complete the building of a hospital after years of delay, improving roads, building a new school, and bringing a bank to the area. "We have to address the daily needs of the people rather than [focus on] other issues such as jihad," says Hamed, an Islamic-studies teacher who condemns suicide bombings as being contrary to Islam.

But there is much more at stake in these municipal elections than local issues, which were until now handled by PA appointees. The PA sees the vote as a prelude to legislative and presidential elections and as an initiative that could give a major boost to Yasser Arafat's legitimacy and help answer calls for democratic reform. The risk for the PA, however, is that Hamas will be crowned the most popular Palestinian political faction, at least in Gaza.

"The municipal elections will show the balance of power in our society, how much Arafat weighs and how much Hamas weighs and the strength of independent groups," says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

"Arafat is living his legacy in a contradiction," he adds. "In the morning people say he is a lovable, elected, and historic leader, but in the evening they say he is aged, weak, corrupted, and corrupting, The election can bring an answer to the question of whether people are tired of this legacy, of 40 years of Arafat as a symbol."

Danny Rubinstein, Palestinian affairs analyst for the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, says: "Arafat is trying to show he is practicing reforms on the basis that elections are the best possible reform. But from the Israeli and American viewpoint, reform means putting Arafat out of business."

A recent survey on the municipal elections by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research shows Hamas and Islamic Jihad garnering 22 percent of the vote compared to 21 percent for Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas and Islamic Jihad were the choice of 30 percent of the respondents, compared to 18 percent for Fatah.

Jamal Shobaki, the minister of local government, says the elections will go ahead despite the chance of gains by Hamas. "We need these elections to give people a sense of change in their daily life and as an introduction to national elections. The elections can create a new dynamic, a new mentality, a new atmosphere."

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Hamas is hoping to gain votes by presenting itself as a clean alternative to the PA. Gaza Strip Hamas leader Sayid Siyam said in a recent interview with the Palestinian Information Center that "municipal services suffer from corruption and a lack of [efficient] administration." He added that Hamas has not yet decided whether it would participate in legislative and presidential elections, which it previously shunned because they came out of the 1993 Oslo Agreement with Israel.

This election will be held in four stages over a one-year period, with the first 36 municipalities chosen because they are in areas that are relatively calm, Shobaki says. If there are Israeli army operations in some of the areas, polling will still proceed in other areas, he says. "We will do it wherever it's possible."

Wednesday, the Israeli army expanded its two-week-old offensive in the Gaza Strip, with tanks moving deeper into the town of Beit Lahiya for the stated goal of stopping Palestinian rocket fire at Israeli border towns.

Israel is unenthusiastic about the PA's election initiative. "It's like holding elections under the regime of Saddam Hussein," says Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "We won't interfere but these elections are worthless and cosmetic." The PA tried to register East Jerusalem residents to vote, but Israel, which views the area as part of its capital, shut down the centers.

Rubinstein, the Haaretz correspondent, says the election plans could fall apart if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares, or due to intrigues by Arafat.

He predicts that "Arafat will hold these elections on one condition: That he is sure they will be a big boost. He will do all the tricks possible to show Fatah is a majority in the municipal councils. Hamas could boycott in response to these tricks."


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