DEIR EL BALAH, GAZA STRIP — DEIR EL BALAH, Gaza Strip -- When Hamas swept Deir El Balah's City Council elections a year ago, winning 13 of 15 seats, the fundamentalist Islamic group suddenly faced an identity crisis.
Best known for the violence it launched against Israel through suicide bombings and rocket attacks, Hamas wanted to prove to the Palestinian people and the world that the organization was also able to create order, stability and prosperity.
In Deir El Balah, Hamas found the perfect setting to showcase its hidden talents.
On Wednesday, Palestinians will go to the polls in their first legislative elections in a decade. For Hamas, which is running under the party name "Change and Reform," there is no better campaign advertisement than the Islamic movement's mastery of the gritty details of municipal government, as displayed in the cities where it has taken control during the past year.
When the Hamas-led council took control, this community of 60,000 people was saddled with $1.5 million in debt and didn't have cash to pay its workers. Its pothole-ridden streets were strewn with trash, its water supply was sporadic and its residents refused to pay their municipal bills.
One year later, the city has undergone a transformation, locals say. The budget is balanced. A new three-story city hall is under construction. Ten miles of roads have been resurfaced or built. Water reliably flows from the taps; the streets are regularly swept; city employees get their pay. And while residents might still lack civic pride, most have resumed paying their bills.
"People have water. The streets are clean. We don't have to tell them of our success -- they see it," says Ghazi al-Masri, Deir El Balah's deputy mayor.
Not so clear to voters or the world, however, are Hamas' long-term goals.
While Hamas has shown a talent for repairing sewage systems and balancing budgets, as well as running an extensive social service network of clinics, schools and charities, it hasn't abandoned its calls for armed resistance and the destruction of Israel.
Many Palestinians and Israelis are left to wonder where Hamas is headed. Will its involvement in parliament and normal political life have a mellowing effect on the Islamic movement's militant wing, leading it to abandon violence in favor of negotiations? Or, once it tastes politics on the national stage, will Hamas use its newfound power to raise "the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine," as its charter promises, plunging the Palestinians into a new era of violence with Israel?
Public opinion polls suggest that Hamas might win as much as 30 percent of the vote in Wednesday's elections, a remarkable achievement for an organization that once reflected the radical fringes of Palestinian society.
For longtime members of the Islamic movement, this election campaign is the culmination of more than three decades of meticulous preparation. Started as an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s, Hamas was built from the ground up in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, attracting members through preaching and charitable work before spreading its influence into trade unions, universities, professional organizations and local government political races beginning in December 2004.
Hamas became the main challenger to Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and Arafat's own party, Fatah. Hamas refused to endorse the Oslo Accords, the agreement between Israel and the PLO to create an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. It is also an organization that keeps many of its activities, and its leaders, hidden. Hamas' fighting force, thought to number several thousand, is held responsible for scores of attacks against Israel. Israel has responded by targeting and killing prominent Hamas members, leading Hamas to be more secretive about its leadership. Still, the movement has continued to draw supporters.
"Step by step, we have realized all of our goals," says Rasha Saleh Rantisi, widow of Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, a Hamas leader killed by Israeli forces in 2004. She continues his work as the leader of Hamas' charity for women.
For Israel and the United States, the steady rise of Hamas in local and national elections creates a dilemma. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by Israel and the United States, and it's unclear whether those nations will maintain formal contacts with the Palestinian Authority once Hamas becomes a part of it.
While there have been hints by the United States and the European Union that the Palestinian Authority could lose financial support if Hamas joins the Palestinian government, the Bush administration has enthusiastically supported the elections as part of its drive to spread democracy in the Middle East.
Hamas leaders say the United States should not reject results favorable to Hamas.
"Doesn't America want democracy? Then why can't they accept democracy for the Palestinians?" asks Ahmed Bahar, a Hamas candidate from Gaza City.
But Palestinians too have uncertainty and concern about where Hamas might lead them.
Sitting in a restaurant in Deir El Balah's downtown, Ismail Jabara, 38, says he has been impressed by the Hamas-led City Council's leadership. "They are cleaning and doing a lot of work," he says.
But Jabara, who worked at a Tel Aviv hotel as a repairman until the beginning of Palestinian uprisings in 2000, says he blames Hamas for the violence that makes it impossible for him to return to his old job. "It's because of Hamas I have no work," he says. "We want peace. We don't know what Hamas wants. It's ambiguous."
Hamas' intentions have become murkier in the weeks leading to Wednesday's elections. Top Hamas leaders don't talk of wanting to destroy Israel and have been evasive in interviews about whether they would ever disarm or negotiate with it.
Instead, Hamas is projecting itself as the honest and trusted political alternative to Fatah, the party of Mahmoud Abbas and Arafat -- the party that controls the Palestinian Authority and that Hamas says has poisoned Palestinian society because of its corruption and incompetence.
In recent weeks, Hamas has run a disciplined, well-organized campaign shunning the parades of rocket launchers and rifles that were common in the past. Instead, as at a rally here last week, there are songs, marches and bread-and-butter political speeches promising an end to corruption, better services and economic development.
"There will be no corruption in our future. That is our goal. Islam is the solution," says Abu Hamza, a Hamas leader in Deir El Balah, addressing several thousand supporters dressed in green Hamas caps and scarves.
About the only hint of Hamas' armed wing came when a musician on stage used a synthesizer to mimic exploding rockets, to accompany a marching song.
But Hamas continues to quietly promote its militant activities, arguing that it was resistance, not negotiations, that led Israel to withdraw its troops and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip last year. One Hamas banner strung across a Deir El Balah street perhaps captured the campaign's duality best: "With one hand we build; with the other we resist."
"Hamas is giving messages and signals to the Palestinian people, to the world, to Israel, that they are ready to be more pragmatic, politically speaking," says Salah Abdel Shafi, a political analyst from Gaza City. "They are sending signals to the world that they are in the process of change, and I think this trend will continue."
But, Shafi adds: "We can't say for sure that Hamas is going to turn into a pure political party and abandon the armed struggle."
Some members suggest negotiating with Israel, while others advocate establishing a Palestinian state in place of Israel.
Although no one knows Hamas' next move, many analysts are encouraged by the group's willingness to participate in the political process instead of sitting on the margins.
"The more you keep them out, the more you push them toward radicalization," says Hashim Ahmed, a political scientist at Beir Zeit University in the West Bank.
Many Palestinian voters, however, appear less concerned about where Hamas might guide them in the years ahead than about whether it can address their immediate concerns: unemployment, corruption and a general despair about Palestinian leaders.
"They want people to be honest. They want to be relieved of some of their everyday problems," says al-Masri, Deir El Balah's deputy mayor.
Seated behind a large, immaculate wooden desk stacked with tidy piles of papers, al-Masri oversees a busy office. Aides rush in and out, briefing him on flood control and cleaning projects, asking for his signature and guidance.
A former middle school history teacher, al-Masri was asked by Hamas to run for City Council last year along with a group of other professionals, including doctors, lawyers and businessmen.
"I want to be part of a government that serves people," he says.
Like most Hamas members, al-Masri dodges questions about the organization's intentions, preferring not to look beyond the next step of Hamas' plan: bringing security to the Gaza Strip and West Bank, restoring confidence in Palestinian government and creating jobs.
On the streets of Deir El Balah, an agricultural community that was hemmed in by Jewish settlements until the Gaza withdrawal, such goals are enough to attract new voters.
Azmi Sa'ad, a driver from Deir El Balah, was a lifelong member of Fatah and as a young man fought Israel as part of Fatah's armed wing.
But in recent years, Fatah's ineptness drove him away from the party he once was willing to die for. This election, he'll cast his vote for Hamas.
"I was a fighter for Fatah, but now I don't want to have anything to do with them. Fatah was not serious. They steal," he says. "Hamas may steal, too, but not like those before."