Hamas Gets Strong Support in Elections

The radical Hamas (search) movement made a surprisingly strong showing in local Palestinian elections, according to preliminary results obtained Friday, signaling a drop in popularity for the ruling Fatah movement ahead of next month's presidential poll.

Elections for local councils were held Thursday in 26 communities perceived as Fatah (search) strongholds, with some 150,000 eligible voters choosing from among more than 800 candidates. Sixteen percent of the 360 local council seats were reserved for women.

According to preliminary results obtained by The Associated Press, Fatah won a majority of council seats in 14 towns, while Hamas, participating for the first time in Palestinian elections, took control in nine communities.

In two towns, a joint Hamas-Fatah slate won, indicating that local issues and clan loyalties blunted the rivalry at times. The outcome of the vote in one community, Yabed, was not immediately available.

"This is an outstanding result for Hamas," said Palestinian analyst, Ali Jerbawi, a former head of the Palestinian Election Commission. "The 26 localities were selected from the beginning (as) strongholds of Fatah. So the results should have been more for Fatah than Hamas."

Hamas has been at the forefront of anti-Israeli violence, carrying out homicide bombings and other attacks, even as it has emerged as the strongest political challenger to Fatah, the PLO faction led by the late Yasser Arafat (search).

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the result reflected strong support for the group but suggested that Hamas was ready to forge coalitions with Fatah.

"The coming stage is one of development and rebuilding our society, and we will cooperate with everyone to strengthen our society."

The vote was the first in municipalities since 1976. Polling stations were jammed throughout the day, with high voter turnout reported. Elections were held in any of the major Palestinian cities or large towns. Voting in an additional 600 towns and villages was expected to be held next year.

Hamas is boycotting the Palestinian presidential elections on Jan. 9, but its strong showing in the municipal poll could indicate faltering support for interim leader Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, the presidential front-runner.

"Abu Mazen won't have an overwhelming majority," Jerbawi said. "I think he will win with 55 or 58 percent."

Jerbawi doubted that the weak Fatah showing in the municipal elections would have any affect on fledgling Israeli-Palestinian peace moves, despite Hamas' strong opposition to them and its continuing calls for Israel's destruction.

Israeli-Palestinian rhetoric has muted since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Nov. 11. Both sides have raised the possibility of improved relations after the Jan. 9 election.

In Israeli-Palestinian violence Friday, Israeli troops shot and killed three armed Palestinians in the town of West Bank town of Tulkarem, the military said. The three were members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group with ties to Fatah.