RAMALLAH,(Reuters) – Hamas extended local election gains from the fractured ruling Fatah party on Friday and Israel said that if the Islamic militants won Palestinian political dominance it would end any hope for peacemaking.
Hamas, committed to destroying Israel, appeared to profit from division in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas”s Fatah movement and gained an important boost ahead of a January parliamentary election from the latest West Bank polls.
Provisional results released on Friday by the electoral commission showed Hamas won control of the council in the West Bank city of Jenin following voting on Thursday. Hamas earlier won control of municipalities in Nablus and al-Bireh.
Thousands of Hamas supporters celebrated in the Gaza Strip, chanting "God is greatest" and waving their green flag. Final official results are expected on Saturday. Hamas also made a strong showing in three earlier rounds of local voting.
Support for Hamas has grown at the expense of Fatah, long accused by Palestinians of corruption and incompetence while now struggling to heal a rift between an old guard and younger members.
Although Hamas has not been widely expected to win the Jan. 25 poll outright, the disarray in Fatah could significantly strengthen Hamas”s chances in the first parliamentary ballot in which it will participate.
That has stirred worries in Israel since Hamas opposes negotiations and has spearheaded a Palestinian uprising, though it has largely followed a 10-month-old truce.
"If Hamas were ever to dominate Palestinian politics, that would mean the end of the peace process," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ruled out talks with Abbas on Palestinian statehood unless he disarms factions like Hamas, a process that is meant to begin under a U.S.-backed peace road map. Hamas refuses to disarm.
One Israeli was hurt in a shooting in the West Bank on Friday. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Hailing the victory in the West Bank local poll, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said it indicated "that our people are united behind the choice of reform and change and united behind resistance."
It was another blow for Abbas”s Fatah, struggling to heal that split that opened this week when rival factions presented competing lists of candidates to contest the election for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).
"We are extremely worried," said Fatah official Ziad Abu Ein, blaming the local election defeat on chaos spread by Fatah gunmen as well as the leadership”s failure to choose popular candidates.
Fatah”s division is broadly between an old guard dating from late leader Yasser Arafat”s years in exile and younger members who fought Israel in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip and who now seek a bigger share of power.
The split has widened since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in September after 38 years of occupation.
"Fatah has two choices; either to regroup or to take steps to sabotage the PLC elections. Otherwise they will risk Hamas controlling the PLC," said Palestinian commentator Ali Jarbawi.
As well as its victories in other West Bank cities, Hamas won three seats in Ramallah, the Palestinian seat of government. But overall, authority there automatically goes to Christians who traditionally controlled the city”s municipality.