Political heirs of the late Yasser Arafat solidified their hold on power in this week's Palestinian local elections, but candidates from the militant group Hamas gained ground...

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JERUSALEM — Political heirs of the late Yasser Arafat solidified their hold on power in this week’s Palestinian local elections, but candidates from the militant group Hamas gained ground, particularly in the Gaza Strip, unofficial results released yesterday show.

Arafat’s Fatah party won control of 14 of the 26 local councils up for grabs, the results showed, providing the group with a confidence-boosting victory ahead of elections Jan. 9 to pick a Palestinian president.

Hard-liners from Hamas secured majorities in nine locations, however, including the West Bank’s Jericho, the largest city up for grabs. Fatah-Hamas coalitions appeared poised to run councils in three other villages.

“This is an outstanding result for Hamas,” said Palestinian analyst Ali Jerbawi, a former head of the Palestinian Election Commission. “The 26 localities were selected from the beginning [as] strongholds of Fatah. So the results should have been more for Fatah than Hamas.”

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Hamas leaders had complained that Fatah had selectively chosen to hold elections where the Islamic militant group’s support was weakest.

The local elections were the first such votes in more than two decades in Palestinian areas and were the first opportunity to gauge the relative support of Fatah, generally considered more willing to compromise in negotiations with Israel, and Hamas, which has conducted a chilling four-year suicide-bombing campaign against Israeli targets. Fatah officials said they had won 66 percent of votes cast.

Both groups hailed the results, as did elections officials.

“These results appear to demonstrate a real desire by our people, despite the trouble and the Israeli occupation, to participate in democracy,” said Ziad abu Zayyad, a Palestinian Authority elections official.

Voting, held Thursday, went largely without difficulty, though lines were long in some locations and polls were kept open for hours past the scheduled closing. Officials said turnout was 85 percent.

The campaign to replace Arafat, who died Nov. 11, officially gets under way today. Seven candidates are running, but pragmatic Palestine Liberation Organization leader Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah member, is considered the front-runner.

Because the Palestinian Authority is an outgrowth of the 1993 Oslo Peace accords that Hamas bitterly opposed, the Islamic group is boycotting the presidential election. But with its leadership decimated by Israeli airstrikes and arrests, Hamas decided to beef up its political operation and take part in this week’s local elections, and the results may encourage it to run candidates in legislative elections next year.

More than 800 candidates, including 140 women, took part in this week’s local elections. New laws ensured that women would hold at least two seats on each council.

Hamas won strong backing in Gaza Strip cities and refugee camps, but made fewer inroads in the West Bank, with the notable exception of Jericho.

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the result reflected strong support for the group, but 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.”

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.