A multimillion-dollar reconstruction project, funded in large part by the Japanese government, has changed the face of what was Yasser Arafat's embattled Mukata headquarters complex in Ramallah.
Crumpled buildings have been cleared away. The once sandbag-protected entrance to the stairway leading up to Arafat's quarters is now pristine and easily accessible. Building work at what the sign individualistically calls the "Mousoleum of President Yasir Arafat complete with prayer hall" is in full swing, alongside the guarded area where the "rais" lies buried beneath a large Palestinian flag. Mahmoud Abbas's mustachioed portrait now gazes down from the archway leading to the prefab quarters of the security detachment. Half-a-dozen dark Mercedes are parked nearby.
Nidal Abu-Dahan, Abbas's bodyguard, marches briskly across the compound, a tall man in a hurry. I ask him how well Hamas will do in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council on January 25, and he pauses for only two sentences in response.
"No one will vote for Hamas," is his first. "Only 25 percent," is his second.
At that rate of inflation, his third sentence, had he spared the moment to deliver it, might have put Hamas at 50 percent - which happens to be what Hamas officials themselves are predicting.
In mid-December's elections for the local council in Ramallah's adjacent municipality, El-Bireh, Hamas won nine of the 15 council seats.
Two went to independent candidates and Abbas's Fatah list won only four.
"It was a protest against Fatah corruption," says the flat-capped owner of a dry-goods store around the corner from the municipality building. "People are fed up with the mess."
You don't have to press hard for details. Over cups of bitter coffee, the grievances come pouring out. On a national level, people see top Fatah officials building themselves lavish homes and driving luxury cars. And on a local level, they see jobs being given to relatives and friends, unfairnesses in the awarding of building permits, dirty streets.
He doesn't volunteer whom he voted for, and I don't push him. He notes that only 6,000 locals voted in the El-Bireh elections, perhaps a quarter of the potential electorate. He says he doesn't know if people's despair over what he calls "interior issues" will translate into similar support for Hamas in the parliamentary vote. And he asserts that voters didn't opt for Hamas "out of religious affiliation."
But the bottom line, he says, is that Abbas's PA has lost the trust of ordinary Palestinians. "People think Hamas will do better, be fairer, than Fatah."
Another man in the store chimes in that "even Christians are voting for Hamas. People are saying, 'Things can't be any worse.' They hear the international community saying that 'if you elect Hamas, we'll cut off aid.' But it's the PA that was misusing the world aid. Why does the world insist that Mafia rule is the only leadership the Palestinians can have?
"Abbas promised to end anarchy and lawlessness," this man continues. "He won an election on that basis. But he didn't use the mandate. He tried to appease. And now he's paying ransoms to kidnappers, and people know that if you want to get a job you storm the Bethlehem municipal building."
How well does this man think Hamas will do in the parliamentary vote?
"Well, that depends," he says sardonically. "Remember that the PA security personnel are to vote two days before the rest of us, behind closed doors."
Um Muhamad saw first-hand for the past 12 years how the El-Bireh council was run.
Warmed by a small radiator, her toddler granddaughter rotating incessantly on an office chair at her side, she sits, as she has since the mid-1990s, at the reception desk in the municipal building, directing visitors and fielding calls.
"This city got heaps of foreign aid; it never reached the people," she says with the confidence born of having witnessed regime change. "Only a handful of people here benefited. They went on courses. They enjoyed the foreign travel. They took the commissions on everything they purchased for the council."
Muhamad, who wears a green sweater and trousers beneath a coat and has her head covered, says she's delighted that Hamas has come to power here, and hopes it replicates the success in two weeks' time. "They are straight," she proclaims of the new councillors. They don't care about materialism. They want to serve the people. They don't take commissions; they have a committee that oversees purchasing. They've met with every city employee, and asked us what problems we have. I told them I've been here for 12 years, don't have a computer, never got sent on a course. In the past, I was always told, 'You're over 40. You're useless.' These people told me, 'We'll take care of it all.'
"People are disgusted with the PA," she rushes on. "They were depositing millions of dollars in bank accounts abroad for themselves and their children. They didn't do anything for the people. My daughter [she has seven children] sent her CV to all the ministers after graduating university. She's very bright. But we're simple people, without connections. She didn't get a job."
Isn't she worried that, if Palestinians now vote for a parliament with a heavy Hamas presence, the world will withdraw aid because of Hamas's extremism, and ordinary people will suffer?
"If the world cuts funding, it will only strengthen Hamas," she pronounces with certainty. And then, unlike the man in the dry-goods store, she launches a religious defense of the Hamas ideology: Peace with Israel is "impossible," she says. "Our religion says the conflict will continue until the day of judgment. They took the land of Palestine and the people will never give up." It might help matters if Israel ended "the humiliations, the checkpoints, the walls, the killings. My mother-in-law is in Mokassed hospital [in east Jerusalem] and we can't visit her. Her children are in Jordan and can't come and see her. She'll die alone. This makes the people hate Israel."
But no, there could be no peace no matter how Israel behaved. "The only solution is for those who came from Russia, Ethiopia, America, to go back. I was born in El-Bireh but my parents are from Lod; we're refugees from 1948" - she lowers her voice - "and we're still considered outsiders here. There'll be no return in my generation, but I think in the next generation it's possible."
But the Israelis aren't going anywhere.
"They are only there because America supports them. I believe it will change in the future."
She stresses that "I want Israel gone," but also that she doesn't support "the attacks" - by which she means suicide bombings. "It is forbidden. They are against civilians, people on their way to the doctor. I might be on the way to the doctor. I wouldn't even kill an ant. The Palestinians must have an army and be strong. I support a war between armies."
The local Fatah headquarters is a short drive from city hall, past a central square dominated by giant Lipton Tea billboards, and past the lavish PA Ministry of Social Welfare replete with a luxury BMW parked out front.
Stuck to a pillar by the entrance to the HQ is a poster showing a gun-toting Israeli soldier and the legend "Born to Kill."
Dozens of men of all ages mill around countless offices on the ground floor, chatting and smoking next to the shiny brass "No Smoking" signs.
Hisham Sharif Kundah, a local Fatah official, ushers me into an office with marble-effect tiled floor and a flamboyant beige curtaining arrangement to assure me, most earnestly, that Fatah couldn't be happier about the rise of Hamas. "If you have two children and one excels, would you be angry?" he asks.
But after a period of Israel-bashing - he says Israel is "the only country that refuses to accept our presence here," that it is "trying to escalate violence to block the elections," and that the PA cannot provide law and order because its security personnel are too scared of Israel to walk armed in the streets - he takes on the high-performing Islamic "child" nonetheless.
Hamas talks big about opposing the Oslo process, he scoffs, but its very participation in the elections represents acceptance of the Oslo "umbrella." And it's softer than Fatah on Israel: "Hamas said it was prepared to accept elections without the participation of Jerusalem. It's already making concessions.
"How do people know Hamas would do better when it has never governed before?" he asks bitterly, alternately fiddling with a pen and drawing on a cigarette as more and more sidekicks squeeze into the room. "We've governed. Yes, we've made mistakes. But they would make the mistakes that we've already learned from.
What about all the corruption complaints?
"Are Hamas any better? And we're not bad by international standards. We're under a world microscope. If an NGO wishes to give $10 million, they find a British guy, he will steal the $9 million and leave us $1 million, and then" - his voice rises at the unfairness of it all - "they'll ask us where the $9 million has gone."
Four floors up in the same building, Abu Hassan, Fatah's treasurer, sits behind a multi-locked door alongside a large gunmetal safe. "Just papers," he says dismissively, nodding in its direction.
A soft-spoken man who fingers his worry beads throughout our conversation, he immediately acknowledges that "people are voting for Hamas as a protest against Fatah," but says he doubts this will translate to similar levels of parliamentary support. "I think they'll get less than 10 percent."
Fatah got off to a slow, disunited start in the campaign, but he believes it will win on January 25. "Fatah leans to peace more than the other factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad," he says. "There is nothing positive in what they are doing. Violence only breeds violence. People don't like the suicide attacks. They reflect badly on us and prompt an Israeli response."
Going further onto the offensive, he declares that Hamas is "exploiting religion to try and take over the PA at any cost... If Hamas takes over, it will impose many restrictions on the Palestinians: We will be a mini-Khomeneist Iran or Talibanesque Afghanistan. Our ties with all our neighbors will worsen. The entire world will oppose the Palestinians."
Hasn't the Fatah-dominated PA played into Hamas's hands with the luxury homes and the fancy cars and the jobs for the boys?
"No one can defend corruption," he sighs. "Palestine is very small and the Palestinian people are very smart. When mistakes are made, people see them. So, of course, there were mistakes. We also oppose it. But the number of corrupt people in the PA is relatively low when compared to the region, including Israel. The issue of corruption is being inflated by Hamas. It might affect some segments of society - especially the unemployed, facing daily hardships."
Abu Hassan, who sits in front of a wall bearing a drawing of Arafat and a framed photo of a stiff-looking Abbas, says the Palestinian people have suffered a lot and want "salvation and peace." He says he still believes peace with Israel is attainable, and that it is the father-to-son "educational culture" that is thwarting viable compromise on the refugee issue. Generation to generation, they are "perpetuating the belief in return."
But the PA has failed to broadcast a message of compromise, failed to use the schools to promote reconciliation.
"It's very difficult to face the people and tell them the truth," he offers, "and anyone who does is immediately attacked, because it is so personal. The PA's policy is to solve the problem. But when we try to address this directly, these people in the camps take a very strong position against you."
He gets up to show me out and says, "I'm going to get assassinated for talking to you."
"I hope you're kidding," I say.
He laughs. "I'm not kidding."
Back at City Hall, I speak briefly to Ayda Abu-Obeid, one of the two new independent councillors, a former school principal and ex-chair of the Palestinian Women's Organizations in America who now runs a local dry-cleaning business.
She says the new council holds meetings "all the time" and that the Hamas majority is committed to "budgetary transparency."
Bareheaded and wearing a purple coat, she says her Islamist council colleagues "won't shake my hand but treat me with respect." They are capable people, she says. "The PA didn't do its homework. They didn't tell the people where the money was coming from and going to. They live - what's the expression? - 'high on the hog.' They didn't appoint qualified people to these council posts. There's been nepotism. The people lost their faith in the PA, and Hamas is filling the vacuum."
There are no Hamas councillors in the building now, so the receptionist calls one of them at his business nearby, and he walks over.
Ziad Dayyeh, dark-haired, polite and intense, was No. 6 on the victorious list. As he turns on the lights in a vast, ground-floor meeting room, and I pull out a couple of chairs, he notes that it was not actually a formal "Hamas" party with which he won election, but rather the "List for Change and Reform" The roster was chosen by "like-minded colleagues, and supported by Hamas. But none of us can say he is a member of Hamas. Israel will jail him."
The head of the list, "Mayor" Jamal Tawil, indeed, has been in Israeli administrative detention for the past three years, said by Israel to be a founding member of the Hamas Izzadin Kassam terror group.
Dayyeh has a master's degree in bio-medical engineering from Dundee University, though no discernible Scottish accent. "It was quite a short program," he says. Now he runs a company distributing medical equipment.
He says Hamas did so well in the most recent local elections - winning big, too, in Nablus and Jenin - because the Palestinians "were encouraged by our performance" in other local authorities where it had won previously power, "and because of the joblessness, the poverty, the PA's corruption, the desire for change." Also, because Hamas put up "clean, bright" candidates - engineers and pharmacists and academics and teachers, and has a record of running health clinics and schools and distributing charity.
He estimates that it will gain "50.5 percent" in the parliamentary vote. Why so specific? That's the average of Hamas support in the last round of local voting, he says.
At a local level, the plan is to expand the role of the municipality - "it should be a mini-government in all fields, not just for cleaning the streets and licensing building. We will get involved in economic projects - direct involvement in businesses, investment, to reduce dependence on outside donors." The new councillors are "learning about the municipality now," but they soon intend to set up "mini-neighborhood councils, to be more accountable to the people, and specialized committees, in engineering, social science, economics."
What about the national agenda, the policy on Israel?
"Hamas looks at Israel as an occupying force. They must get out of Palestine."
And by "Palestine," you mean...?
"Yes, all the area occupied in 1948. But we are ready, as you know, for a temporary solution. Like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said, a 'hudna.' Israel must withdraw from areas occupied in 1967 and allow statehood here for five, 10, 20 years. Yassin offered that kind of accommodation."
No Muslim can recognize a Jewish right to sovereignty in Palestine, he says. "Islam outlaws any force occupying Islamic land. But if Israel wants a single state in Palestine, where all the people are free to choose their government by elections, we are ready for that."
Does Hamas want to eclipse the current PA, to take over full responsibility for the government of the Palestinians? "We think God has asked us Islamic people to be in this position," Dayyeh replies. "We are pressed forward by our supporters. We are not pushing for power. But we are ready to be in any position that will support the Palestinian people."
A man from Hamas to head the PA?
"If the Palestinian people will choose our party to be the president, we will take it."
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