New rifts over Palestinian elections

Mohamed Abu Shaar , Saturday 18 Dec 2021

Palestinian municipal elections took place in the West Bank last weekend, but they were boycotted in the Gaza Strip in a sign of continuing inter-Palestinian divisions.

New rifts over Palestinian elections
Palestinians outside a polling station in Beit Dajan, east of Nablus

The first round of the Palestinian local elections, which include municipal councils and local government bodies, took place on Sunday.

While the elections were held in the West Bank, they did not take place in the Gaza Strip, as Hamas, which has been in power in Gaza since 2007, refused to hold the elections there. This reignited a row between Hamas, Fatah and other factions, which accused each other of obstructing this key component of the democratic process.

Sunday’s elections took place at 154 local bodies in the West Bank, with 66.14 per cent of the 405,687 eligible voters casting their ballots. Altogether, 268,318 people went to the polls. 96.5 per cent of their ballots were valid, 1.01 per cent were blank and 2.43 were invalid, according to the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, which is overseeing the elections.

The Commission said that the results showed that independent lists had won 70.86 per cent of the 1,503 seats, while party lists had won 29.14 per cent of the seats. Positions at 162 local bodies were filled unopposed because there was only one list contesting the elections.

The second round of the elections will be in March 2022, and Palestinian factions and human rights groups are urging Hamas to allow elections to be held in the Gaza Strip so it is included in the process. Hamas, however, has refused to participate as the group appoints members of local and municipal councils from a pool of its supporters.

This week’s results reflect the ongoing political crisis in Palestine, with many Palestinian factions, especially Fatah and Hamas, resorting to nominating and supporting allegedly independent lists and directing their supporters to vote for them.

According to Palestinian analysts, the two groups decided to hide behind independent lists in most municipal bodies because of the demographic nature of the West Bank where clans control some areas.

The main reason, however, was the growing anger towards the Palestinian Authority (PA) and government, which represents Fatah, they said.

Fatah decided to support lists that included families or individuals who are popular and have good followings. Hamas did not want to officially participate in the elections, especially since it was blocking them in the Gaza Strip, which is why it decided to support independent lists driven by Hamas or left-wing parties angry at the PA.

The elections sparked quarrels among Palestinian forces about who should be held responsible for obstructing the Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections. Palestinians were scheduled to hold legislative and presidential elections in May 2021 and July 2021, respectively. However, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas decided to cancel the elections because Israel would not allow voting to take place in Occupied Jerusalem.

Hamas saw this as an attempt to avoid the elections, while the PA and Fatah insisted that elections would not be held as long as Israel was banning them in Jerusalem, the capital of the anticipated state of Palestine.

Palestinian Minister of Local Government Majdi Al-Saleh said Hamas had been taking “illegal steps” to prevent local elections in the Gaza Strip, describing the group as the “main obstacle” facing elections in Gaza.

“Hamas is blocking elections in the Gaza Strip,” Al-Saleh said. “It appoints the chairmen of local and municipal councils illegally and under false pretenses.” He added that the Palestinian government had sent mediators to convince Hamas to hold the elections, but they had failed.

“By blocking elections in the Gaza Strip, Hamas is breaking the law and violating the rights of citizens to practise democracy,” Al-Saleh said, noting that if Hamas changed its position then elections would be held in the Strip on 26 March 2022.

Ahmed Al-Majdalani, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) Executive Committee and secretary-general of the Popular Struggle Front (PSF), said that municipal elections are part of the democratic process and are a right of citizens of all political stripes, irrespective of political affiliations.

He said it was unacceptable to continue obstructing and delaying elections in Gaza at a time when Hamas was participating in elections in the West Bank in different ways.

Wassel Abu Youssef, secretary-general of the Palestinian Liberation Front (PLF), said he regretted Hamas’ continued refusal to give citizens their right to exercise democracy in the Gaza Strip. He urged Hamas to hold elections in March 2022 at 11 polling stations, which could then be a foundation paving the way to general elections and an end to divisions, he said.

The Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) said that “Hamas’ arguments for blocking local elections in Gaza are not convincing. It does not have the right to prevent Gazans from participating in elections.”

A delegation from the ICHR visited Gaza last month in a bid to persuade Hamas to hold elections. It hopes that the second round of the elections will still take place in Gaza in March 2022.

Hamas said it had not agreed to municipal elections in Gaza because they should be part of a comprehensive electoral process, including municipal councils, local governing bodies, the suspended Palestinian parliament and presidential elections.

The group views the PA’s reason for cancelling the general legislative and presidential elections as a continuation of the inter-Palestinian political crisis and an attempt to avoid holding landmark elections in the Palestinian Territories.

Hamas and Fatah do not see eye-to-eye on several issues, most notably the elections, which is part of the political paralysis in Palestinian politics. The fracture between the two sides has been in place for 15 years without any prospect it will resolve soon. Suggestions by US officials to form a national unity government to prepare the climate for holding general elections also came to nothing due to diverging views between Hamas and Fatah.

Abbas wants Hamas to declare its full commitment to international resolutions before it can be part of a national unity government. He is concerned that if Hamas joins the cabinet before making this commitment, the new government could be subject to political and economic sanctions.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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