RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' ruling Fatah movement narrowly fended off a strong challenge by Hamas to win local elections Friday, but the Islamic militant group captured the three biggest races in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, establishing itself as a major political force.
The corruption-tainted Fatah won in 45 of 84 communities in the Palestinian territories, according to results obtained by The Associated Press. But Hamas won 23 contests, including all 15 council seats in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya, on the frontier with Israel, as well as majorities in Rafah and Beit Lahiya in Gaza.
The results, which will not be final until Sunday, were disputed by both sides.
Some 4,000 Hamas supporters, meanwhile, celebrated in the streets of Qalqiliya, shooting off fireworks, handing out sweets and waving green Hamas flags. Hamas also staged large victory marches in Rafah, which is on the border with Egypt, and the Gaza refugee camp of Bureij.
The local elections were seen as the final test for Abbas before July's parliamentary elections. Abbas has been seeking to persuade Hamas to give up violence and transform itself into a political party, but he is also concerned that an increasingly powerful hard-line opposition can hinder his peace efforts with Israel.