(AP) NABLUS, West Bank – Hamas made a strong showing in local elections in the West Bank, the first time the Islamic militant group competed at the polls, according to preliminary elections results obtained Friday.
The apparent show of support for Hamas came as leaders of its main rival in the election — the ruling Fatah movement — are pushing to resume peace talks with Israel. Hamas is pledged to Israel’s destruction and opposes negotiations.
Elections for local councils were held in 26 communities on Thursday, with some 150,000 eligible voters choosing from among more than 800 candidates. Sixteen percent of the 360 local council seats were reserved for women.
The vote was the first in municipalities since 1976. Polling stations were jammed throughout the day, with high voter turnout reported. Elections were held in any of the major Palestinian cities or large towns. Voting in an additional 600 towns and villages was expected to be held next year.
According to preliminary results obtained by The Associated Press, Fatah movement won a majority of council seats in 14 towns, while Hamas took control in nine communities. In two towns, a joint Hamas-Fatah slate won, indicating that the rivalry was at times blunted by local issues and clan loyalties.
The outcome of the vote in one community, Yabed, was not immediately available.
Hamas officials said the group won a majority in at least 17 local councils, based on reports from their election observers.
The discrepancy could not immediately be explained. However, on the local level, membership in a political faction is now always clear-cut, and some candidates could have been claimed by the rival groups.
A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas spokesman, said the result was a reflection of strong support for the group among Palestinians.
Abu Zuhri suggested that Hamas was ready to forge coalitions with Fatah. “The coming stage is one of development and rebuilding our society, and we will cooperate with everyone to strengthen our society.”
Official results were to be released Saturday.
The race was seen as a dry run for a Jan. 9 election to replace Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is boycotting the presidential election, but said it would participate in legislative elections and additional local elections, tentatively set for 2005.
Elsewhere in the West Bank, Israeli troops shot and killed three armed Palestinians in the town of Tulkarem, the military said. The three were members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent group with ties to Fatah.
In Israel, the moderate Labor Party chose young lawmakers to serve as ministers in a new government under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, another step toward forming an alliance that will solidly back a planned Gaza withdrawal.
Members of the 2,188-strong Labor Party central committee voted Thursday for their favorites from a list of candidates to fill seven Cabinet seats. The eighth minister will be Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Labor leader Shimon Peres, expected to serve as Sharon’s second vice premier.
Sharon has headed a shaky minority government since the summer, when his hard-line coalition splintered over opposition to his plan to pull settlers and troops out of Gaza Strip and remove four West Bank settlements next year.
Labor has long favored pulling out of much of the West Bank and all of Gaza in exchange for peace and is strongly in favor of Sharon’s limited withdrawal.
In recent months, Labor has been shielding Sharon, its traditional rival, from being toppled by abstaining in parliamentary no-confidence motions.
Now after a partnership deal reached earlier this week, Labor is poised to join Sharon’s Likud-led government, along with a small ultra-Orthodox Jewish party. The new coalition will give Sharon a majority of 65 in the 120-member parliament.
On Thursday, Labor’s central committee elected its ministers, choosing some of the youngest members to lead the team, topped by Ofir Pines-Paz, a parliamentary floor leader. Pines-Paz was expected to become either the interior or housing minister.
Likud and Labor agreed Peres would be vice premier in the new government. But Likud stalwart Ehud Olmert is already Sharon’s vice premier, and Sharon and Peres are waiting for parliament to approve new legislation which will allow for two such deputies.
Israeli media reported the legislation was expected to be approved by mid-January. The new government will be sworn in immediately thereafter.
Sharon and Peres have joined forces in the past. Peres served as Sharon’s foreign minister from 2001-2002.