Hamas wins key local elections

The Hamas militant group won local elections in the West Bank's largest cities, according to preliminary results released Friday, dealing a harsh blow to the ruling Fatah party just six weeks ahead of a parliamentary poll. Hamas swept more than 70 percent of the vote in the West Bank city of Nablus, highlighting the fierce challenge posed by the Islamic movement to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party, which suffered a split on Thursday when a group of young-guard leaders broke away.

A Hamas victory in a Jan. 25 parliamentary poll could torpedo efforts to renew long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and damage the Palestinian relationship with the United States. Hamas, sworn to the destruction of Israel and responsible for dozens of suicide bombings, is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

"If the Hamas was ever to become a dominant force in Palestinian politics, that would be the end of the peace process," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. Hamas' welfare programs, coupled with its fierce resistance to Israel's occupation, have won it grass-roots support among Palestinians who are fed up with Fatah's corrupt government and its inability to rein in gang-led lawlessness in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Abbas, meanwhile, is mired in an internal Fatah struggle. His last-minute attempt to unify the ranks failed Thursday when a group of popular young guard leaders split from Fatah, forming a new party called "Future," led by jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti.

On Thursday, Abbas threatened to resign if Fatah fails to unite, according to participants in a party meeting. The seriousness of the threat was unclear, however. In his earlier days as deputy of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Abbas walked away in a huff several times only to return.

Hamas' landslide victory is a direct result of Fatah's internal struggle, said Hani Masri, a Palestinian political commentator for the Al-Ayyam daily. He predicted a handsome showing for Hamas in the parliamentary vote. "Fatah today is a sinking ship. Everyone is trying to jump ship and this will open the way for Hamas to win the upcoming election," Masri said.

Thousands of jubilant Hamas supporters celebrated in the streets of Nablus late Thursday, where the Islamic movement won 73 percent of the vote, or 13 seats on the 15-member council. The two remaining seats went to a coalition of Fatah and independent candidates.

"The big party will be when we win the elections" for parliament, said Hamas spokesman Yasser Mansour. In the town of Jenin, Hamas won eight seats, while a coalition between Fatah and the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine garnered seven. In el-Bireh, a large suburb of Ramallah, Hamas won 72 percent of the vote, grabbing nine seats, to Fatah's four. The PFLP and independents took the last two seats on el-Bireh's 15-member council, informs the AP. N.U.

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