Why Rising Popularity Poses a Dilemma for Hamas

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Young Hamas supporters arrive in a bus at an election campaign rally, Jan. 20, in Gaza City

The first thing that people in the West Bank town of al-Bireh noticed about their new mayor was that he turned up for work on time. Previous mayors had often arrived late, if at all, but Omar Hamayel, 29, has a lot to do. Though al-Bireh is relatively wealthy compared to other towns in the West Bank, its streets are littered with garbage, streetlights and water pipes are broken and unemployment is high. "The fact that when the staff comes to work I am here and when they leave I am still here means that they see a sense of responsibility becoming a reality," says Hamayel, a former chemistry teacher who was elected mayor a month ago. His employees have taken notice. "He's at his desk by 8 a.m. and works through after the doors are closed and people leave," says Ahmad Arqoub, a civil servant who has worked for the town since 1980. "He is really trying to make a good impression."

Whether Hamayel and pols like him succeed may well influence the future of the Middle East. Hamayel is a member of Hamas, the radical Islamic group that has actively pursued the violent overthrow of Israel, killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and rocket attacks and is listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. But Hamas has also emerged as a major a political force, positioning itself as the chief rival to Fatah, the party of former president Yasser Arafat and current Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. In local elections last year, Hamas won control of towns and cities across the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The group is set to increase its power in parliamentary elections this week, which would make it a crucial player in any future negotiations with Israel. "We have credibility on the street," says Hamayel. "People know we're not going to compromise our principles."

In towns like al-Bireh, Hamas has built popular support by providing a disciplined alternative to Fatah, which is seen by many Palestinians as corrupt, inefficient and unable to run a garbage collection service, let alone negotiate with Israel. Hamas has long run its own medical clinics, schools and soup kitchens for the poor—mostly in the Gaza Strip, its stronghold. In last year's local elections, Palestinian voters gravitated toward Hamas because of its reputation for having "members with a clean record," as Mayor Hamayel puts it, in a reference to Fatah's many corruption-tainted officials. Residents of towns where Hamas won control say they are now better run than they were under Fatah. In Qalqiliya, a West Bank town that Hamas won in elections last June, the Hamas council has paid off the town's debt, balanced its budget, raised salaries and begun rebuilding roads. Even in al-Bireh, which Hamas has governed for less than a month, there are signs of improvement: the streets are being cleaned and teams of men last week were installing stoplights in the rain hours after the end of the workday. The locals are impressed. "Fatah has not achieved anything for me," says Haytham Hammad, 22, a corporal in the Palestinian security forces, over a cup of coffee and a cigarette in an al-Bireh cafe. "Hamas is capable of taking back the rights of the Palestinian people—daily rights like a good job, clean water."

Israeli officials warn that Hamas' political moves shouldn't be mistaken for moderation. Israeli lawmakers said last week it won't deal with any Palestinian government that includes Hamas in leadership positions until the group disarms. The party has mostly stuck to a year-old self-imposed cease-fire, though an Israeli security official told TIME that rockets fired from Gaza into Israel are still made by Hamas operatives who pass them on to other radical groups. And while most Palestinians say they want peace—a poll cited in a report for the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace last week showed 60% now oppose the use of violence—Hamas is not ready to renounce its tactics, including suicide bombings. "Any right without force to protect it will be a right lost," says Sheikh Abu Tir, 55, a leading Hamas candidate in east Jerusalem.

For now the party is shifting between tough-guy talk and moderation—a balancing act similar to the one practiced by Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland and by Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. As it gains power, Hamas may come under pressure from Europe and the U.S to open talks with Israel— which senior Hamas officials last week said they would consider. But negotiating a settlement that recognizes Israel's right to exist would also force Hamas to renounce the ideology on which it was founded. "Sometimes they must pray that they don't win a majority and have to become responsible," says the Israeli security official. Success for Hamas will cause problems for Fatah and Israel, but the greatest uncertainties it will create will come inside the party itself.

With Jamil Hamad/al-Bireh and Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem