The militant group Hamas captured up to one-third of the votes in Palestinian municipal elections held Thursday, according to preliminary unofficial results, a solid showing that could presage its performance in parliamentary balloting early next year.
The Palestinian commissioner for local elections, Jamal Shobaki, said it appeared that the governing Fatah movement had won a majority on councils in 45 towns or villages and Hamas had captured 22. The initial results in 15 locales were inconclusive.
The turnout was about 81%, Shobaki said.
Throughout the day, Palestinians gathered at schools and municipal centers throughout the West Bank to cast their votes.
Old men leaned on canes as they shuffled toward ballot boxes; little boys chased after one another wearing headbands of satiny green for Hamas or the checkered black-and-white cloth representing Fatah, which is led by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.
Democratic elections are still something of a novelty for Palestinians, who went to the polls in January, electing Abbas successor to the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Municipal votes were also held in January and May, and a fourth round is planned before year’s end.
“My vote is important,” said Haniyeh Qurt, 54, a veiled woman who emerged beaming from the polling station at the Boys’ Secondary School in the West Bank city of Beitunia, outside Ramallah. “You see, I’m a citizen, and this is my right.”
Beitunia, with a population of about 135,000, was the largest of the communities electing mayors and municipal councils in Thursday’s vote. There, as in many towns, the vote pitted a slate of Fatah candidates against rivals from Hamas, together with a handful of independent contenders and those representing smaller factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
As in many towns, Beitunia’s results were close -- Fatah won six of 13 council seats, Hamas took five and independents captured two, Shobaki said, citing the preliminary returns.
In addition to the 82 communities where candidates faced off, 22 councils were elected unopposed, with 16 going to Fatah and six to Hamas.
The balloting was the first since Israel completed its withdrawal of troops from the Gaza Strip on Sept. 12. Thursday’s voting did not include Gaza, however.
The costal strip is the home base of Hamas, the chief rival to Fatah. But Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, has a considerable following in the West Bank as well and has done well in previous local votes.
“They are the ones who will really work for improvements in our society,” said Karima Hassoon, a 28-year-old Palestinian mother who said she had voted for the Hamas slate of candidates. “They are the ones we can trust.”
About 20 candidates were among the Hamas suspects picked up in Israel’s raids earlier in the week in the West Bank.
The vote was generally peaceful, with observers from all the Palestinian factions keeping watch at polling stations. At the Beitunia boys’ school, a man with a pistol tucked into his belt was ordered off the premises, though the weapon was not discovered until after he had cast his ballot.
“What’s the problem?” he asked as he was hustled out.
Hamas intends to field candidates in parliamentary elections scheduled for January, a move opposed by Israel. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other senior Israeli officials have indicated they might try to hamper the vote with closures and roadblocks in the West Bank, but diplomats from Europe and the United States have been quietly trying to dissuade the Israeli government from such a course of action.
The Bush administration and European leaders, however, have supported Israel’s demand that Hamas be disarmed.
Results from the previous rounds of municipal voting in the West Bank and Gaza are still being contested, in part due to confusing vote-tallying methods. On Thursday, for the first time, the Palestinian parties fielded slates of candidates rather than individual ones, which was intended to clarify and streamline the vote count.
Times special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.