Jalal Zeid has risen rapidly through the ranks of Ramallah's
Hamas organization. Two weeks ago the fleshy-faced activist was merely a grassroots volunteer. Today he is Hamas's branch manager.
Zeid explains that eight of the once-bustling Ramallah office's nine office workers were arrested in an Israeli sweep two weeks ago. He alone remains.
"Now the office is very quiet. People no longer come here because they fear arrest," says Zeid, 37, a Hamas member for almost two decades.
Following its successful bid in May's Palestinian municipal elections, Hamas emerged as a media darling and attracted the attention of Europe
and the US as a purportedly legitimate political player. When its leaders tempered their calls for Israel's
destruction and its mayors provided badly needed public services, the press and the NGOs took heed.
But Hamas's own missteps including a deadly accident during a Gaza rally
on September 23, the indiscriminate shelling of Israel, and the killing of PA security officers have weakened the group.
, which in February and March elevated Hamas to an equal negotiating partner vis- -vis the PA and Fatah
, seems to have abandoned the radical Islamic group. It tendered a proposal this week to delay the Palestinian Legislative Council elections slated for January a move that greatly favors the PA and its chairman Mahmoud Abbas
Zeid and a few Hamas activists who agreed to meet The Jerusalem Post
in their Ramallah offices fretted that the crackdown the IDF says it netted 459 members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad
in the past two weeks would hinder their success in the December 7 local council elections in Gaza
and the West Bank.
"People don't really want to vote for candidates in prison," notes Zeid.
The Fatah-run Higher Commission for Local Elections, which administers the local elections, has also threatened to cancel the December 7 elections in Gaza, citing security concerns.
Zeid wears a prim mustache a departure from the customary cropped beard of Hamas men. He looks around the meticulous office; he is convinced that it is under constant Israeli surveillance.
As opposed to the offices of the myriad Fatah related political parties nearby, Hamas's is neat, even cheery. Each municipality up for elections this December is assigned a cubbyhole and the organizations' newspapers and campaign posters are rolled, ready to be handed out.
Lining the building's foyer are batteries of old posters calling on local folk to attend what was the most disastrous Hamas rally in the group's 19-year history. During the September 23 rally, a truck carrying gunmen and RPG rocket launchers overturned. The resulting explosions left almost 20 dead and dozens wounded. Hamas, which vows the destruction of the Jewish State, blamed Israel.
Despite the chaos, Hamas rallied in the September 26 municipal elections, and captured over a third of the 104 local councils up for grabs.
Zeid's friend and fellow activist, Abu Mustapha an economist who fears revealing his real name says the current dearth of activists will make campaigning for the local council elections more difficult. Until the late September arrests, even the group's charismatic West Bank leader, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, roamed Ramallah freely, giving lectures and attending meetings. Yousef has spent the better part of the past two decades in and out of Israeli jails, and he is currently in administrative detention in the Ashkelon
The explosion during a Hamas procession in the teeming Gaza refugee camp of Jabalya
did not necessarily catalyze the group's fall.
Some finger Yousef for precipitating the arrests in provocative harangues on Al-Jazeera
blaming Israel for the explosion. Even Abu Mustapha admits "that mistakes were made. Hamas is not after all made up of saints."
Halfheartedly Abu Mustapha adds: "We are still committed to the state of calm."
Statements like that may be too late, says Palestinian analyst Dr. Muhammad Yaghi.
"Hamas overplayed its hand. It has clearly suffered from its display of militancy and took its show of arms too far," he adds.
Hamas may be as popular as ever among its preexisting constituents, notes Yaghi. But with members either jailed or hiding, regaining political traction and attracting new voters will be more difficult, he says. He thinks the Palestinian everyman has had enough of the show of guns for now.
The PA, hitherto remarkably tolerant of what officials call "the parallel authority," i.e. Hamas, has piled on the Islamic Resistance Movement
since the group declared sole responsibility for Israel's Gaza withdrawal in August.
Jamal Shubaki, Chairman of the Higher Commission for Local Elections, and a PLC member said in an interview Thursday that the December 7 elections in Gaza are all but canceled. "How can I protect the election process against [Hamas's] RPGs?" he asks.
With Hamas's continued refusal to recognize the PA's
authority, the PA has no choice but to cancel the elections in Gaza, he says. "It is untenable that they want to run for elections in an authority whose laws they don't obey."
Shubaki accuses Hamas of propagating "the big lie" in proclaiming victory over Israel in its Gaza withdrawal. Just as slanderous, he says, is Hamas's claim that the removal of its weapons means dooming "the resistance against Israel."
Hamas denounces the PA's decision to postpone Gaza elections as a cynical attempt to avoid elections where Hamas is strongest.
In the West Bank Hamas may remain weak for sometime. During the hour-long interview, only one activist popped by Hamas's offices in what should be a busy election season. Across the hall, the waiting room of an ophthalmologists' office brimmed with patients.