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Hamas candidates in the Nablus area who are contesting the parliamentary elections later this month could not have chosen a better spot to launch their election campaign last Tuesday: the home of Hamas's chief bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash, in the tiny village of Rafat, west of Nablus.
Ayyash, who was assassinated by Israel in January 1996, was responsible for a wave of suicide bombings that killed and injured about 100 Israelis. A graduate of Bir Zeit University, Ayyash earned a BA in electrical engineering and joined the armed wing of Hamas in 1992, where he specialized in making explosives from raw materials available in the West Bank.
Dr. Nasser Abdel Jawad, a member of Hamas's List for Change and Reform, said he chose to kick-start the campaign from Ayyash's home because he was a "symbol of resistance and pride" for all Palestinians.
"We want to tell the world that Hamas is coming to defend the resistance to rebuild Palestine," he added.
The event at the home of the former Hamas bomb-maker was attended by a large number of local residents, as well as many people from nearby villages. In recent weeks, such events have attracted thousands of Palestinians, who are not necessarily Hamas supporters. Some Palestinians see the trend as an indication of Hamas's growing power, while others say the large turnout reflects the Palestinians' strong desire for change and reform.
In Gaza City, Hamas chose to launch its election campaign from the home of its slain leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. That event, too, attracted thousands of Palestinians. Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas's nation-wide list for the elections, described his movement's decision to participate in the elections for the first time since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority as a "major and historic event."
Hamas had previously refused to participate in any election for fear that such a move would be interpreted as recognition of the Oslo Accords, which saw the creation of the Palestinian Authority and its parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council.
So what made Hamas change its policy now? According to Haniyeh, Hamas feels that the majority of the Palestinians yearn for regime change and are fed up with the corruption-tainted Palestinian Authority and its failure to deliver.
"We hope that our participation in the elections will signal the beginning of the reorganizing of the Palestinian home and fighting corruption," he said. "We want to use the podium of the Palestinian Legislative Council to defend the resistance and confront those who are trying to tamper with the rights and resources of our people."
When Hamas leaders talk about "defending the resistance," they are referring to their vehement opposition to the dismantlement of armed groups such as its Izzaddin al-Kassam militia. Hamas is keen on stressing that its participation in the upcoming elections should not be seen as dropping the option of "resistance" against Israel.
In other words, Hamas is saying that when and if it takes over the Palestinian Authority, it won't dissolve Izzaddin al-Kassam or other armed groups. That explains why the Hamas candidates in the Nablus area chose to launch their election campaign from the home of Yahya Ayyash. The message that they are trying to send to their supporters in particular and the public in general is that Hamas's decision to contest the vote does not mean the movement has given up the "military" option.
In its election campaign, Hamas is focusing on the two most sensitive issues that have been worrying Palestinians for quite a long time: financial corruption and anarchy. Aware of the fact that a growing number of Palestinians are disillusioned with the Palestinian Authority 10 years after its establishment, Hamas has chosen to run under the motto of change and reform, namely regime change and an end to rampant corruption. The death of Yasser Arafat and the ensuing power struggle in the ruling Fatah party further convinced Hamas that the time is ripe for trying to fill the political vacuum. And Hamas leaders and candidates are facing no difficulty in persuading many Palestinians that the only way to rid them of their misery is by replacing the current regime.
The results of the municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which saw Hamas make a strong showing, are yet another indication of the disenchantment of many Palestinians with their government. In Ramallah and al- Bireh, the traditionally secular strongholds of the Palestinians, many residents, including Christians, did not hesitate to say they voted for Hamas. When asked about the reason, most voters said they simply wanted to "punish" the Palestinian Authority for embezzlement and mismanagement.
"Those who vote for Hamas do not necessarily support suicide bombings and terror," explained a Ramallah businessman. "It's because they want to see good and honest leaders running their affairs, without stealing the money. People are fed up with financial corruption and nepotism. Our leaders live in big villas and drive new cars, while many people don't have jobs or money to feed their children. The international community is to blame for the rise of Hamas because that's what happens when you support a corrupt and rotten regime."
While many in Israel, the US and Europe are convinced that a Hamas victory would deal a fatal blow to the "peace process," Palestinians say their top priority at present is to establish a credible regime that would invest foreign aid for the welfare of the people and put an end to financial corruption.
Most Palestinians lost faith in the peace process a long time ago, and are therefore focusing on what they describe as the need to "reorganize" the Palestinian home from within. As far as they are concerned, progress on the political track does not depend on who's running the Palestinian Authority because "everything is in the hands of Israel and the US." To back up their argument, these Palestinians point out that nothing has changed regarding the peace process under the new administration of Mahmoud Abbas.
Not surprisingly, many Palestinians also appear to be unmoved by US and European threats to cut off financial aid if Hamas wins the vote. Such a move, they note, will only increase frustration and despair among Palestinians and drive them into the open arms of Hamas.
Meanwhile, Hamas leaders are deliberately sounding ambiguous statements as to how they would deal with Israel when and if they take over the Palestinian Authority. Publicly, Hamas's virulent anti-Israel rhetoric has not changed after the movement's decision to participate in the elections. Its leaders continue to issue various threats against Israel, vowing that they will never give up "one inch of all Palestine."
Privately, however, some Hamas leaders have made it clear over the past few weeks that the movement would become much more pragmatic once its representatives sit in the parliament and government. Moreover, they have not ruled out the possibility of conducting negotiations with Israel.
As Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar put it earlier this week, "Negotiations with Israel are not a crime." Even if the elections are eventually called off, there is no denying the fact that Hamas has already secured its status as a dominant player in any future government. Threats to cut off financial aid to the Palestinians if Hamas wins the vote have only boosted the Islamic movement's standing.
Postponing the elections will only further strengthen Hamas because it will be seen as part of a US-Israeli plot to keep corrupt Palestinian Authority officials in power.
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