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Town Votes Hamas Out of Office

February 27, 2006

QALQILIYA, West Bank (AP) _ In the nine months since Hamas won control of Qalqiliya’s town council, it says it has balanced the budget and rooted out corruption.

Yet residents were not satisfied, and in a stunningly swift change of heart voted for candidates of the rival Fatah Party in last month’s parliamentary election.

Hamas’ defeat in Qalqiliya _ in contrast to its landslide victory just about everywhere else in the West Bank and Gaza _ highlights the obstacles ahead as the militant group tries to rule an impoverished, impatient population. Meeting voters’ expectations will be even harder if Western nations make good on threats to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in aid once a Hamas government takes over.

The reversal in Qalqiliya was born of voter fickleness, annoyance with Hamas’ efforts to impose order and residents’ demands for quick improvements in their lives.

``We have no time to wait. We have no money. We can’t wait years. We tried Hamas for six months,″ said resident Yasser Barkham, 37, who backed Hamas in the local election, but then switched to Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Qalqiliya, a town of 45,000, was always considered one of the more moderate Palestinian communities and it maintained close ties to the neighboring Israeli town of Kfar Saba, where many residents worked.

Like most Palestinian communities, Qalqiliya’s economy crashed when Israeli-Palestinian violence broke out in 2000. Cut off from its economic partner by Israel’s new separation barrier, the town grew more conservative and more desperate.

The Fatah administration, riddled by corruption and infighting, alienated voters here before the May 5 municipal elections, and Hamas swept all 15 seats on the town council by promising reform and a better life. The victory was seen as a predictor of the group’s eventual victory in the parliamentary election.

Qalqilitya’s Hamas mayor, Wajeeh Nazzal, has been jailed in Israel for 42 months without charges. His deputy, Hashim al-Masri, took office in his place and worked swiftly to put the town’s chaotic finances in order.

He computerized the financial records, put in place strict regulations and created administrative order, he said.

In a plan to increase revenue, the town gave discounts to residents who paid their utility bills promptly. It doubled the income from the zoo by ensuring entrance fees went to town coffers instead of to corrupt officials.

By year’s end, the government had turned a projected $640,000 deficit into a $640,000 surplus, using the money to pave roads and lay water pipes, al-Masri said. The town has sought bids for sewage work and for a new restaurant in the zoo, he said.

``What we did in one year was more than the previous council did in five years,″ he said.

The Hamas council did cause a minor scandal when it denied a music festival use of a municipal building, forcing its cancellation and fanning fears Hamas was trying to impose its strict interpretation of Islam.

Many residents said they were not concerned about that controversy. But they also were unimpressed with the new government’s transparency and accounting procedures.

``I’m not interested in administration. I want services,″ said Ghassan Amoudi, 43, a fishmonger.

Residents said they were furious about the explosion in electricity prices since Hamas took power, an increase al-Masri attributed to the rise in world oil prices.

They also got fed up with Hamas’ efforts to establish order. Drivers complained they could no longer park in restricted areas and storeowners were angry when they were forced to remove sidewalk displays.

Many here also believed that the rise of Hamas, listed as a terror group by the United States and European Union, drove foreign aid projects out of town.

And after five years of hardship, they wanted instant improvements.

``People raised their expectations a lot,″ said Ibrahim Juma, 50, who owns a clothing store. But they were not fulfilled, he said.

With Hamas’ popularity falling, the local Fatah branch recovered from its surprise defeat and reorganized in preparation for the Jan. 25 parliament vote, said Ahmad Shreim, a local Fatah leader who was elected to parliament.

It held a primary to choose its candidates for Qalqiliya’s two parliament seats. When two of the losers decided to run as independents _ a widespread Fatah phenomenon that may have cost the party more than a dozen seats across the West Bank and Gaza _ the Qalqiliya branch closed ranks, ostracizing the rebels, Shreim said.

On election day, Fatah set up an operations room that opened at 6 a.m. and sent more than 600 activists into the streets with voter lists in a get-out-the-vote effort, Shreim said. By 10 a.m., Fatah knew it had won the Qalqiliya seats in a landslide.

When asked to explain Hamas’ defeat, al-Masri dissembled in a manner more customary to Fatah officials, claiming Hamas voters were confused and boycotted the election _ despite a turnout above 80 percent, among the highest in the West Bank.

Shreim hopes Fatah’s overall loss in the election will shock the party, much as he was shocked last year, and spur widespread reforms. He has already begun holding seminars with other party branches to teach them the secret of his victory.

``Qalqiliya was a model for success, and we want that experience repeated all over the country,″ he said.

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