Hamas could win many seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council in next month's parliamentary elections, and play an important role in future decision-making, Palestinian officials conceded on Saturday. The results of Thursday's Palestinian municipal elections - which saw Hamas win three major West Bank cities, Nablus, Jenin and al-Bireh, are a barometer for the upcoming parliamentary vote, the officials added. Hamas candidates won 13 out of 15 seats in the traditional Fatah stronghold of Nablus. In Jenin, Hamas won eight seats and Fatah won seven. In al-Bireh, adjacent to Ramallah, Hamas won nine seats, while Fatah won only four. Hamas, which had already made a strong showing in three previous rounds of municipal elections over the past 12 months, is now hoping to make similar achievements in next month's parliamentary elections. Fatah officials warned over the weekend that a Hamas victory would "drive the final nail into the coffin of the peace process." They claimed that Israel was to blame for the rising power of Hamas because of its policy of targeted killings, settlement expansion and the construction of the security fence in the West Bank, as well as the lack of progress on the political track. "What will happen if Hamas wins the parliamentary elections?" asked Abdel Nasser Najjar, a prominent columnist. "Will it form the next cabinet and become an alternative to the Palestinian Authority? And if Hamas forms the cabinet, how will it deal with the world? And what if the world refuses to deal with cabinet and halts financial aid to the Palestinians?" Many Fatah leaders have been exerting heavy pressure on the PA to postpone the parliamentary elections to avoid a humiliating defeat for their party. But PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, according to his aides, has fiercely resisted the pressure, arguing that such a move would anger the US and the rest of the international community. Although Hamas claimed over the weekend that its victories were an indication that a growing number of Palestinians have endorsed its political and military strategy - including the need to continue the armed struggle against Israel - many Palestinians are convinced that the results of the municipal elections should be seen as a vote of protest against the PA more than an expression of support for the Islamic movement. They pointed out that many Palestinians were disappointed with Abbas because of his failure to fulfill his promises to end the anarchy, fight corruption and improve their living conditions. "The voters have punished Fatah by casting their ballots for Hamas or boycotting the elections," said political analyst Hani al-Masri. "The people want change and reforms and the only alternative they see to Fatah is Hamas." Palestinian political analysts offered different explanations as to the main reasons behind Hamas's growing popularity. They all agreed, however, that this trend was likely to continue unless the PA and the ruling Fatah party took concrete steps toward reforms and ending the state of lawlessness and anarchy. The latest crisis in the ruling party, which reached its peak last week with Marwan Barghouti's decision to form a new list that would run in the parliamentary elections separately from the official Fatah list, is said to have played into the hands of Hamas. While the Fatah representatives were engaged in endless bickering over the make-up of their list, Hamas presented a unified list consisting largely of well-educated Palestinians, including university professors, physicians, engineers, pharmacists and editors. By comparison, many of the Fatah candidates are former security prisoners or veteran officials whose names have been linked to financial corruption and abuse of power. Even Barghouti's "reformist" list includes such dubious figures as former security chiefs Muhammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub. Both Dahlan and Rajoub played major roles in the corruption-riddled regime of Yasser Arafat and their names have often been linked to various scandals. The ongoing power struggle in Fatah has severely undermined the party's credibility, especially since it is regarded by many Palestinians as a fight over power and money, not ideology or strategy. Another reason behind Hamas's soaring popularity is the continued state of lawlessness and anarchy in PA-ruled territories. This is an issue that has raised deep concerns among the majority of Palestinians, who hold the PA, its security forces and the Fatah militiamen responsible for the phenomenon. Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank, was until recently known as one of the most significant bastions of Fatah. But on Thursday an overwhelming majority of residents voted for Hamas, giving the radical Islamic movement full control over the municipality. Local Fatah leaders watched with disbelief as thousands of Hamas supporters poured into the streets to celebrate their victory. According to many residents, the PA's failure to contain dozens of local militias and gangs that have been terrorizing them for years was one of the main reasons behind Hamas's success. The same applies to Jenin and al-Bireh, where local residents have also long been complaining against the PA's ineptitude. Aware of Hamas's growing popularity, Abbas has decided to postpone local elections in Hebron and Gaza City, where Hamas is also certain to defeat his Fatah party.