The militant Islamic group Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist group, has now become a significant political force. In Palestinian municipal council elections earlier this month, Hamas won 30 of the 84 councils and dominated in four of the five major Palestinian cities. Fatah, the political party founded by the late Yasser Arafat, won 50 councils, with the other four going to other parties. Hamas' strong showing came in its first effort at the ballot box. Now many analysts are expecting it to do well in upcoming Palestinian Legislative Council elections.
Samar Assad at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC says Hamas' victories clearly came at Fatah's expense, especially in one West Bank city encircled by Israel's security barrier. "The voters turned to Hamas in a place like Qalqiliya," she says "not for religious reasons but for basically the failure of Fatah. People in Qalqiliya have not seen the Palestinian leadership do anything to bring their plight to the forefront as they should. And, of course, they blame Fatah because Fatah is in the leadership of the Palestinian Authority."
Former U.S. State Department official Phillip Wilcox, now with the Foundation for Middle East Peace, says many Palestinian voters also turned away from Fatah because they consider the party to be corrupt. As for Hamas, Mr. Wilcox credits its grass-roots organizing as a major reason for its strong political showing. "Hamas over the years has launched informal neighborhood and village-level public services that the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority has not been able to provide," he says.
Hamas was created in 1988 with both military and political wings. Its name is an Arabic acronym for "Islamic Resistance Movement." Hamas has been a steadfast foe of the 1993 Oslo Middle East Peace Accords and a two-state solution for the Israeli - Palestinian conflict.
Analyst Paul Scham at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC says Hamas' confrontational stance boosted its political gains. "Hamas takes credit for the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza," he says, adding "And, Palestinians almost universally feel that it is their steadfastness and their attacks against Israel that finally convinced Israel to pull out of Gaza."
Many observers say Hamas may become a major force in the Palestinian Legislative Council when elections are held in several months. But Samar Assad at the Palestine Center doesn't believe Hamas seeks to dominate parliament this year. She says Hamas instead has a long term strategy for wresting control of the Palestinian Authority from Fatah.
"Hamas wants to give both the international community and the Palestinian community a chance basically to get to know them and to trust them. And then, I think they'll take this as a preparing ground, these four years, for the next election. And that, I think, is when they'll hit their hardest," she says.
Because Hamas has vowed to destroy Israel, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has called on the Palestinian Authority to "do everything possible to prevent Hamas running for election unless it cancels its military wing."
But David Makovsky at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says such pressures put Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazzen, in a difficult position. "Abu Mazzen does not want a confrontation with Hamas where he has to take away their weaponry. That has meant that Israel has not pulled out of the cities. [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is saying Abu Mazzen is not doing his part."
David Makovsky also says that if Prime Minister Abbas moves against Hamas to satisfy the Israelis, Palestinian voters may respond by giving Hamas control of the Palestinian Authority.
Phillip Wilcox at the Foundation for Middle East Peace says the Sharon government would do better to support Prime Minister Abbas rather than hold him to difficult demands. "The natural allies of the Israelis are the Fatah and the secular Palestinians who advocate two states. Much depends on the behavior and the policies of the Israeli government," he says.
For many analysts, the question now is whether Hamas' involvement in the Palestinian political process will change the organization into a mainstream member of the political establishment. Optimists say that Hamas having a stake in the Palestinian government could moderate its militant stance. But pessimists point to Hamas' founding charter which states "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad."
Most observers agree one thing is clear - now that Hamas has political strength, it's not likely to relinquish it.
This report was broadcast on the VOA News Focus program. To see more Focus stories, click here