The Palestinian factions are trying to find a consensus over holding local elections in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The elections were cancelled in 2007 when Hamas took control of Gaza after bloody clashes with the security services of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
It is widely believed that finding common ground on the elections could be a way to close ranks and end the divisions that have persisted between Fatah and Hamas for the last 16 years. The rift has negatively impacted the Palestinian cause, and Israel has exploited this to dodge its obligations in negotiations with the PA.
Successive Israeli governments – mostly led by leader of the right-wing Likud Party and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – have moved in leaps and bounds towards the Judaification of the occupied city of Jerusalem and the annexation of large areas by expanding settlements in the West Bank under the pretext that there is no Palestinian partner capable of negotiations.
The incumbent far-right Israeli government has also taken even more radical steps in the West Bank and Jerusalem, in response to continued right-wing pressure for more Judaification and raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The most recent incursion on the Al-Aqsa Mosque occurred on Sunday and Monday this week, when 3,000 settlers stormed the mosque’s courtyard to mark the Jewish Sukkot holiday that concludes on 7 October.
Among the assailants were Knesset members and former members of the Israeli Cabinet. They stormed the courtyard of the mosque in groups from the direction of the Moroccan Gate and performed Talmudic rituals.
They also walked through the alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City and performed rituals at the gates of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
“Israel wants to trigger the situation in the Palestinian Territories and impose a fait accompli that the Palestinians will not accept, no matter what the cost,” declared Rawhi Fattouch, chair of the Palestinian National Council (PNA).
However, the Palestinians have limited options to counter the Israeli assaults on Jerusalem and the West Bank, due to inter-Palestinian divisions and Israel’s policy of dealing with the Gaza Strip and Hamas as separate from the PA.
The PA has also incessantly complained that Israel is trying to weaken and undermine it.
The Palestinians tried to hold legislative and presidential elections in 2021, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled them because Israel would not allow elections to take place in Jerusalem because Tel Aviv views the city as its unified capital.
The PA demands that East Jerusalem be the capital of a future Palestinian state within the June 1967 borders and before Israel invaded Jerusalem and Gaza Strip.
At the end of 2021, local elections were held in the West Bank, but Hamas refused to hold them in the Gaza Strip. Hamas appoints its associates as representatives to head local and municipal councils without holding elections.
A delegation from the Palestinian Central Elections Commission headed by Chairman Hanna Nasser visited the Gaza Strip in late September and met with Hamas and other representatives.
Leaders attending the meeting reported that they had agreed to hold local elections in Gaza.
However, Palestinian Minister of Local Government Majdi Al-Saleh said on Sunday that disputes with Hamas over local elections in the Gaza Strip had not been entirely resolved.
“We have not agreed on election mechanisms, nominations, and the legal framework, or on who will secure the ballot boxes, financial declarations, and other issues,” Al-Saleh told Voice of Palestine radio station.
These are also the main obstacles that blocked the local elections in Gaza in 2017, but the Palestinian factions are nevertheless hoping that everyone can agree on a solution to hold the elections soon.
The move to hold elections benefitted from positive momentum at meetings attended by Abbas, Hamas Political Bureau Chief Ismail Haniyeh, and other Palestinian leaders in the city of Al-Alamein in Egypt at the end of July.
The meetings recommended forming a committee to continue the Palestinian national dialogue, with the aim of ending divisions and reaching national unity.
At the time, Abbas stressed that “the Al-Alamein meeting is a first and important step towards completing our dialogue. We hope it will achieve the desired goals soon.”
However, taking steps to hold local elections and then presidential and legislative elections in the Palestinian Territories requires confidence-building between the two rival groups, according to political analyst Mustafa Ibrahim.
“A consensus on holding elections requires more efforts to address the issues that have accumulated during the years-long rift,” Ibrahim told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Fatah and Hamas have been exchanging accusations about the political arrests of their members and generating media campaigns to malign each other. This has increased tensions between the grassroots of the two groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Ibrahim said the Palestinian factions must decide if the rift has become too deep to be mended or whether Palestinians must learn to live with it. “Everyone will be at fault if the obstacles preventing the local elections from taking place are not overcome, followed by the holding of legislative and presidential elections,” he said.
According to the Palestinian Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights, a NGO, “holding elections for local government bodies in the Gaza Strip is now an urgent necessity and an objective need in the light of the deteriorating economic and social conditions.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayeh has called for an urgent decision to be taken on a date for the third phase of the local elections, including in the Gaza Strip, under the supervision of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission.
“Electing local councils that are trusted by the public will enable them to overcome the obstacles and difficulties that are facing them in providing basic services,” he said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 5 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly