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  Middle East & Africa
Hamas Successful in Local Elections
Hamas Wins Local Elections — Supporters of Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement celebrate the unofficial overall victory of their group in local elections in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah May 6, 2005. The Islamic militant Hamas won control of nearly one-third of West Bank and Gaza towns in local elections. Photo Courtesy AP/Emilio Morenatti

The Islamic militant Hamas has won control of nearly one-third of West Bank and Gaza towns up for grabs in local elections, according to unofficial results, establishing itself as a significant political force that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas can no longer ignore as he tries to make peace with Israel.

Thousands of flag-waving Hamas supporters took to the streets on Friday, shooting off fireworks, handing out candy and honking car horns. In Qalqiliya - a Palestinian town of 45,000 that straddles the frontier with Israel and once drew large crowds of Israeli shoppers on weekends - the green Hamas banner was hoisted over City Hall, marking the group's sweep of all 15 seats in the local council.

Abbas's own corruption-tainted Fatah movement, which had feared defeat, made a better-than-expected showing, winning in 45 of 84 communities where elections were held on Thursday. Fatah activists attributed the last-minute turnaround to the movement's decision to hold primaries and field more attractive candidates.

The election - the third round of local voting this year - was the final test for Abbas before parliament elections in July. Mohammed Horani, a Fatah legislator and advocate of sweeping reform, said his party would have to work hard to fend off a Hamas challenge in the summer.

Abbas has an ambivalent view of Hamas and its political aspirations. He has encouraged Hamas to transform itself into a political party, hoping this will help him coopt the militants and shore up the truce with Israel. On the other hand, an increasingly powerful Hamas as an opposition party could seriously hinder future peace talks; Hamas opposes negotiations with Israel and has carried out scores of attacks on Israel in recent years.

Hamas leaders on Friday tried to allay concerns that they would impose their hardline views in the communities they now control, or in future peace talks. Instead, Hamas would focus on providing better services in the municipalities it runs, they said. It won the three biggest races - in addition to Qalqiliya, it now controls the towns of Rafah and Beit Lahiya in Gaza.

"We are not Iran or the Taliban," said Mohammed Ghazal, a senior Hamas official in the West Bank. "We believe that personal freedom is one of the foundations of Islam."

However, the rise of Hamas - branded by Israel, the US and the European Union as a terror group - poses some challenges. The Islamic group is an avowed enemy of Israel. Yet many basic municipal functions, such as electricity supply, telephones and rubbish collections are handled jointly with Israeli service providers.

Hamas led the fighting against Israel in more than four years of violence that erupted in September 2000, carrying out scores of suicide bombings, shellings and shooting attacks. However, it has since agreed to a halt in violence as part of a February truce.

An Israeli government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed concern that Hamas will emerge as the largest faction in the parliament election and begin influencing Palestinian policy. Hamas has not yet said whether it will seek posts in Abbas's cabinet after the July vote.

"We are not going to negotiate with terrorist groups in any way," the Israeli official said. "It is up to the Palestinians to decide which direction they want to go."

However, Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher said it was possible Israel could talk with a Palestinian government that included a more moderate Hamas. "I can conceive of Israel dealing with (Hamas), the question is at what point do they give up their arms," he said.

Hamas officials in Qalqiliya indicated that being in power would moderate the group. "We are not dealing with politics, we are trying to improve the daily services of the people of Qalqiliya," said a Hamas spokesman in town, Mustafa Sabri.

Qalqiliya is particularly sensitive because of its proximity to the Israeli town of Kfar Saba.

Kfar Saba was once intertwined with Qalqiliya in a relationship that transcended the conflict. Palestinians from Qalqiliya went to Kfar Saba for work and to buy little luxuries. Israelis from Kfar Saba went to Qalqiliya to dine, buy produce and get their cars fixed.

And even now, with a barrier Israel built separating the two towns, many municipal services are still combined. "I say to the Israelis, our neighbours, we are not here to cause problems for anyone. We are here only to give good service to our citizens," said Sabri.

Thursday's vote was the third - and largest - round of municipal voting since December. One more round is to be held later this year.

More than 400,000 Palestinians were eligible to vote. Turnout reached 80 percent in Gaza and 70 percent in the West Bank. Final unofficial results showed Fatah winning 56 percent of the votes and Hamas winning 33 percent, with the remainder going to independents and smaller parties.

According to an AP tally, Fatah won a majority in 45 communities and Hamas in 23. In 16 towns and villages, neither side won a majority, with independents or small groups getting the most votes.

Fatah and Hamas presented higher totals of the number of races they won - 57 and 34, respectively - than what emerged from the results. Both sides apparently claimed independent candidates as their own. Fatah demanded a recount in Rafah and Bureij, but did not explain why it suspected irregularities there.

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