Fri, Jan 27, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Hamas uses unexpected sex appeal to win votes

PUSHING FOR POWER The Islamic hardliners used some surprising tactics and employed some dubious candidates in their election campaign

THE GUARDIAN , RAMALLAH, WEST BANK

A Palestinian woman walks past a poster of slain Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin in the West Bank city of Ramallah yesterday. Hamas won a large slice of power in Wednesday's Palestinian parliamentary election.

PHOTO: AFP

Some things are more important than religion. Like power. So the party that banned public dancing between men and women in one Gaza town, that firebombed a few Gaza bars and scared the rest out of business, and which routinely glorifies suicide bombers as close to God, on Wednesday discovered sex appeal.

With voters still to be won over in the first Palestinian parliamentary election in a decade, attractive young women draped in green sashes lined up outside polling stations in Gaza to entice the undecided into supporting the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas. The teenagers smiled, sometimes demurely and sometimes broadly and offered instruction on where to put your cross for Hamas.

It would not have drawn a second glance outside Gaza, but this was for a party whose women candidates are often so heavily draped in cloth they can only be identified in campaign posters by their eyes.

Hamas's main opponent, the once indomitable Fatah, could do no better than hire street urchins to wave banners and harass voters with flyers.

On Wednesday night exit polls put Hamas in second place with a victory of sorts in slaying Fatah's huge majority in parliament and forcing it to share power in a new government. The armed Islamic group's best hope for outright victory over Fatah is in the Gaza strip, which the Israelis are already calling "Hamasistan."

The smiling Hamas girls set the tone for a day at odds with Gaza's long suffering. The voting was orderly and transparent. The voters were enthusiastic at casting a ballot that might actually make a difference, even if only in finally being able to put one over on some particularly loathed politician.

"People are very excited," said Amal Kassanar, 20, who voted for Hamas. "You can't have just one party. We have to have several parties in parliament."

Ahlam al-Nwagha announced that she too voted for Hamas and, unprompted, that no one should think she was a prisoner of her veil.

"Nobody is forcing us to do anything. We change what we want to change," she said. "I want to change the government. Hamas must join because we must have different parties."

Among the more contentious candidates in Gaza was the Mother of Martyrs, who sent three of her sons to be suicide bombers. Mariam Farhat's campaign video includes footage of her helping her son, Mohammed, 17, to prepare his bomb belt and advising him on techniques that killed five Israelis. In the West Bank, a candidate appeared on the ballot as Hitler, a nickname he picked up because of his virulent hatred of Jews.

It may not be a surprise that Hamas did well, but it is not what the Israelis hoped for. The new Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, said that the election was supposed to be a way of getting rid of Hamas. "The elections were meant to give power and strength to dismantle the terrorist organizations and not create a situation where those organizations sit in the parliament and then become part of the executive authority," she said.

That view may be a factor in the group's popularity. One of its flyers carries a cartoon of US President George W. Bush forcing a Palestinian not to vote for Hamas. The caption reads: "If America and Israel say no to Hamas, what do you say?"

Hamas dominated the election campaign until a couple of weeks ago when Gaza's Fatah strongman, Mohammed Dahlan, took on the Islamists personally. As head of the Palestinian security force in Gaza a decade ago, Dahlan had Hamas members arrested, tortured and, worst of all from their perspective, their beards shaved off. One of those detained is now a Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar. The two appeared in a televised debate that swiftly turned hostile

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