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Hamas Emerges as a Political Power in West Bank and Gaza

Legislative elections in the Palestinian controlled territories may have dramatically reshaped the political landscape in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Exit polls of voters and public opinion polls indicate that while the ruling Fatah party has won the most seats in parliament, there has been a strong showing by Hamas, the radical Islamic organization that has launched suicide bomb attacks against Israel. Though Hamas is accused by Israel, the U.S., and the European Union of being a terrorist organization, it is winning widespread support for its political message.

Hamas officially calls for the destruction of Israel and it’s waged an armed struggle to bring that about. But now it’s fighting a political battle for hearts, minds and votes. Ghazi Hamad says he is the new face of Hamas.

So why is Hamas suddenly embracing mainstream politics? He says, “Because everything changed. Everything changed.”

Changed -- after the Israelis withdrew from Gaza last year, razing their settlements to the ground in the process. The rubble of Israeli settlers homes litters the landscape here and Hamas sees this as fertile soil in which to lay political roots.

Mr. Hamad explains, “Really, we are not radical organization and we are not extremist fundamentalists. We are an open-minded organization that believes in democracy and freedom and political pluralization. I think we can create a new society.”

Critics of Hamas disagree. Though its candidates campaign in Gaza amid a sea of green banners, scarves and hats, the organization remains widely accused of having blood on its hands. It's honored a ceasefire for more than a year, but its leaders won't rule out a possible resumption of rocket and suicide attacks against Israel once the election ends.

“Their children are sleeping and dreaming sweet dreams," says Mr. Hamad, "and we are suffering from everything.”

Suffering in large measure, Hamas asserts, because of the failed leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

It's dominated by Fatah, the political faction led by the late Yassir Arafat and both in Gaza and the West Bank its candidates are in trouble.

Hamas accuses Fatah of failing to deliver security, economic development, and peace in the 10 years that it has dominated Palestinian politics. If that message resonates with voters here it is Hamas that could soon be facing some tough questions of its own.

Will Hamas push, for example, to Islamicize Palestinians' largely secular society? Can it be any more effective at providing security, combating corruption, and the tribal feuds that have exploded here? And will it agree to abandon the armed struggle in order to concentrate on politics and the peace process?

Salah Abdel Shafi, a political analyst, shares his analysis. "If Hamas wants to be part of a new Palestinian democratic political system, Hamas has to abide by the rules of the game, which means there is only one authority, one security force, and it has to dissolve its armed wing.“

Also at issue here, the future of international aid to the Palestinian Authority. Lawmakers in both the U.S. and Europe say they don’t want to deal with terrorists in government.

But Hamas says its thinking is evolving and so must the global view of an organization whose bloodied hands are now edging closer to the levers of political power.