Fixing the Potholes; Why One Town Threw Hamas out, Even as Others Were Voting Them In

Newsweek International, March 20, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Fixing the Potholes; Why One Town Threw Hamas out, Even as Others Were Voting Them In


Byline: Kevin Peraino

Poor Muayyad Shraim. Ten months ago the 37-year-old physical education teacher was one of Hamas's rising stars. After the Islamist group swept local elections in the West Bank town of Qalqilya last May, he won a seat on the municipal council. But as he walks though the town's streets today, Shraim occasionally looks as if he'd rather get back to leading calisthenics than listen to all his constituents' complaints. Some blame the fundamentalists for higher electricity prices. Others gripe about a cultural festival Hamas canceled last summer. One farmer blasts the Islamists for failing to fix the town's potholes. "People expect us to do everything in one minute!" Shraim cries, more than a little exasperated.

At first glance, the reversal of fortunes in Qalqilya seems like a Western diplomat's fantasy. While most Palestinian towns rallied behind Hamas candidates in January's legislative elections, Qalqilya did just the opposite. Hamas had won all 15 municipal council seats back in May 2005. Yet in January's legislative polls, Qalqilyans gave President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party a decisive 53 percent of the vote, compared with 41 percent for Hamas. What accounts for the plunge? Unrealistic expectations are partly to blame. Quickly improving the quality of life in the ravaged Palestinian territories would be an impossible task for any political party. But the perception of malaise is always a political killer. Says Mohammad Adnan, a 30-year-old salesman: "The message of the street to Hamas was: if you don't deliver, this is what you get."

Could Hamas's implosion in Qalqilya be a preview of things to come elsewhere in the Palestinian territories? Some Western policymakers certainly seem to hope so. Israeli and American officials have said they hope to use economic leverage to strong-arm (or, some say, topple) the new Hamas-led government. One Western diplomat told NEWSWEEK flatly that he thought it would be a "big mistake" for Fatah to join a Hamas-dominated cabinet. He may be getting his wish. In the first session of the new Palestinian Parliament last week, Fatah legislators stormed out as the Hamas majority moved to strip Abbas of some of his presidential powers a development that is likely to make Western donors even more skittish.

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