Dispatch from the West Bank.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 2 2006 10:59 AM

Dispatch From Hamastan

Palestinians may worry about beer, veils, and wages, but few seem unhappy about last week's results.

RAMALLAH, West Bank—Since Hamas' victory in last week's Palestinian elections, it's easier to find a rabbi in Ramallah than to come across anyone on the West Bank who hasn't heard some version of the latest joke: With fundamentalist Hamas in charge, all police stations in the Palestinian Authority are being shut down. From now on, all complaints will have to be filed directly to God.

Not everyone is laughing. Mahmud Halimi, like many Palestinians I've spoken with since the election, wonders what Hamas' pledge to impose sharia law will mean for him. "If they do what they say, maybe nobody can drink beer anymore," the Ramallah waiter told me nervously. He smiled and whispered dramatically, "Or maybe it gets a bit more expensive." Leila Assadi, a 22-year-old business student, is worried, too. The West Bank and Gaza, like much of the rest of the Muslim world, have seen a resurgence in traditional Islamic observance over the last decade. Assadi, who won't say how she voted last week, is in favor of the increased piety—but only up to a point. "Most of my friends wear the hijab now. I think this is a good thing," she says carefully. "It shows that we're not ashamed of who we are. I will probably wear it myself someday. But I don't want to have to wear it."

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Many of those who cast a ballot for the Hamas slate as a protest vote against corruption now find themselves with an unexpected post-election hangover—hoping against hope that the group won't actually follow through on half its campaign promises. Frustrated Fatah partisans took their anger to the streets in Ramallah last weekend, briefly storming the parliament building. But a few days have passed, and the seat of the Palestinian Authority is quiet, at least for now. Yesterday, I saw just one lonely poster from the routed Fatah slate, lying in a muddy puddle near the Muqata. Halimi and Assadi, like most of the Palestinians I've spoken with since the election, may not agree with every element of the Hamas platform—one post-election poll found that as many as three out of four Palestinians hope Hamas will step back from its calls for armed conflict with Israel—but on my visits, I haven't come across a single voter who's unhappy they won. (There must be Fatah voters somewhere, but since election day, they've become a lot harder to find.)

Hamas' defiant political positions, and voters' frustration with Fatah, clearly played a part in the election results. But the decisive factor may have been nothing more complicated than spin. For their legislative campaign, the Hamas leadership hired a pricey political consultant to deal with their self-described "image problem" and help them capture crucial undecided voters. The flack, Nashat Aqtash, advised them on everything from talking points to personal grooming, a project he's been happy to describe to just about any Western reporter in earshot.

This was the first legislative election of the Palestinian television age—the West Bank has only had locally produced television for a little more than a decade—and most Palestinian parties filled their campaign commercials with soaring music or smiling children. (Preferably both.) But Hamas took a slightly schizophrenic tack that seemed to resonate best with the Palestinian public. One of the group's most popular spots was a Western-style ad plugging their uncontroversial "Change and Reform" campaign slogan. The other ad in heavy rotation showed armed militants battling Israeli troops. For all their newfound message discipline, it seems, kinder and gentler may yet be out of reach.

Of course, some pressing problems resist even the most determined spin. A few shop owners are trying to figure out how they'll restock if Hamas follows through on its plan to bar trade with Israel. A quick visit to downtown Ramallah reveals the extent of this dilemma: You practically need a Hebrew dictionary to navigate the marketplace. Store shelves are lined with scores of Israeli-made products, from filing cabinets to fabric softener, and transactions are handled in shekels. These businesses, like the Palestinian Authority itself, also depend on Israel for fuel and power. The worry isn't of some far-off budget crisis. The authority's budget has been stretched for years. Now that the Israelis have suspended the transfer of January tax revenues, rumor has it that government paychecks—critical to economic survival in an area where unemployment regularly runs well into the double digits—may end after this month.

You'd think this sort of widespread unease would make for the shortest post-election honeymoon on record. Think again. It seems Hamas isn't just an unexpected ballot box success; it is proving just as adept at the post-election spin game, at least here in Ramallah. The queasy giddiness that followed the group's rout of Fatah is settling into a hardening resentment of foreign governments and international aid groups that are imposing conditions on the victors. "Why do they think they can tell us what to do? Do they listen to our opinions of their leaders? You think we get a say in what America does?" complained a merchant who called himself Abu Yusef, as he swatted away a swarm of flies settling on a pile of shawarma in downtown Ramallah. But can Hamas really do better than the leaders who came before? Maybe not, he admitted. "But I don't think they can do any worse. Do you?"

Rebecca Sinderbrand has reported from the Middle East for Newsweek, the Boston Globe, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. 

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