With his beardless face brightened by a trendy orange shirt and
matching tie, Saadeh Shalabi does not look like the typical up-and-
coming leader of Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist movement
committed to Israel's destruction.
But Mr. Shalabi, an electrical engineer who works at East
Jerusalem's Al Quads University, is Hamas' top politician in this
middle-class suburb of Ramallah, the West Bank's Palestinian power
center. And, even though his party won less than half of the
available seats here in last week's municipal polls, he appears set
to become mayor, aided by a coalition with independents who also won
seats in the election.
"Hamas did very well," says Mr. Shalabi, in a meeting at the
local Hamas campaign office. According to official results announced
Sunday, Hamas won five of the 13 available seats here. "It's good
that the people will see that the Islamic parties can participate in
democracy and can work to develop their societies."
Hamas, he says, recruited him because of his reputation for being
honest. And if he was going to go into politics, he wanted to work
only with "qualified professional people," he says. "I found those
qualities in Hamas."
The election was one in a series this year enabling Palestinians
to choose local officials for the first time in 28 years. Fatah, the
political party affiliated with the Palestinian Liberation
Organization, won six seats, and the other two seats went to
The results in Beitunia are remarkable in several ways. Even
though Fatah, led by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, won the
largest number of seats in about half of the 104 municipal councils
that were being chosen last week, in many places, the wins were not
enough for Fatah to claim leadership. That resembles the situation
next door, in Israel's multiparty system, in which neither of the
two main parties has won a majority in recent years, and must go
into negotiations with small parties who suddenly hold the power to
make or break a coalition.
What's more, Shalabi represents what could be the face of Hamas's
future. At least in some camps, there's an attempt to reshape Hamas,
which won 13 municipalities in the vote, as a Muslim political party
and less of a guerrilla group. But the different faces of Hamas -
ranging from technocrats like Shalabi to a military wing that
continues to attack Israelis - may make Hamas as political party a
hard sell to the rest of the world.
Election results were announced the same day Hamas gunmen
carrying assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stormed a
police station in Gaza City. The ensuing street battle, which
resulted in the death of at least three people including a deputy
police chief, represents growing tension between the Palestinian
Authority and Hamas militants and some of the worst infighting
between Palestinian factions in a decade. Many PA leaders now worry
that confrontations with Hamas's militants, continuing to flex their
muscle after Israel's historic withdrawal from Gaza, will only