Hamas' win in town elections challenges Abbas
Hamas militants defeated the mainstream Palestinian movement Fatah in nine of 26 local elections, results showed Sunday, in a foretaste of challenges confronting emerging moderate leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas's standing in polls about national leadership has declined since Yasser Arafat's death amid growing weariness with violence and a drive by the U.S.-favored Abbas to revive peace talks aimed at Palestinian statehood on Israeli-occupied land.
But Hamas's solid performance in its first foray into electoral politics, and the first Palestinian grassroots vote since 1976, signaled discontent with corruption and chaos in Fatah that Abbas must overcome to establish his authority.
He received boosts when 560 prominent Palestinians called in front-page newspaper adverts for an end to violence while Israel approved plans to pull back forces to help Palestinians vote in a Jan. 9 presidential election he is widely expected to win.
In another gesture to Abbas, Israel said it would free 165 Palestinian inmates Monday, including 113 of more than 7,000 suspected militants. Abbas has made prisoner releases part of his campaign to encourage militants to lay down their arms.
A tally announced by the Palestinian Authority's Supreme Council for Local Elections showed Hamas scored victories in nine West Bank council races on Dec. 23 against 16 for Fatah.
Fatah won by narrow margins in two districts while the rivals tied for control of one municipality.
The successes of Hamas, a faction dedicated to Israel's destruction, in the first Palestinian ballot since militants launched a revolt in 2000 were likely to send Abbas a message of Islamist clout at the local level.
FATAH'S CREDIBILITY PROBLEMS
Analysts attributed the results, and a 90 percent turnout, to dismay with corruption among long-entrenched Fatah incumbents and Hamas's skill in aiding people cut adrift by a breakdown in Fatah-run public services accelerated by fighting with Israel.
Militant groups have rebuffed Abbas's suggestions of a cease-fire since Arafat died in November and fighting has raged on in occupied Gaza. Israeli tanks killed two Islamist militants planting explosives near a Gaza border fence Sunday.
But poll ratings for Abbas have surged, while violence has abated in the larger West Bank and U.S.-led Middle East peace diplomacy is reviving after years of paralysis.
Palestinian notables including senior Palestine Liberation Organization officials, cabinet ministers, lawmakers, intellectuals and poets, urged an end to militant attacks and a push for democratic reform to advance the quest for a state.
"We reaffirm our legitimate right to confront occupation, but call for restoring the popular character of our intifada and ceasing actions that reduce the range of (international) support for our cause and harm the credibility of our struggle," they said in their high-profile newspaper advertisement.
Abbas, a veteran PLO pragmatist, has branded years of suicide bombings a mistake and gained trust of the United States, which boycotted Arafat as an alleged obstacle to peace.
Mediators hope to capitalize on Sharon's plan to evacuate the Gaza Strip next year as a springboard to a final peace deal.
Hundreds of Jewish settlers blocked a road at the defense ministry in Tel Aviv in a fresh protest against the planned withdrawal which they see as a surrender to militants. Six were arrested after a scuffle with police, a settler spokesman said.
A Jewish settlement in Gaza broke ranks with other ultra-nationalists and accepted government terms to be relocated to Israel rather than stay put, a state official said Sunday.