Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s announcement on June 21 that municipal elections will be held in the West Bank and Gaza on Oct. 8, and Hamas’s July 15 decision to participate, caused a stir among Palestinians.
Since Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004, presidential elections have been held only once—in 2005. Similarly, parliamentary elections have been held only once—in 2006. Accordingly, President Abbas is now serving the twelfth year of a four-year term, while the parliament is in its eleventh year. (In reality, the parliament has been defunct since shortly after the elections, largely due to disputes between Fatah and Hamas). As background, no new presidential or parliamentary elections are on the horizon, and while municipal elections were held in 2004-2005, they were incomplete, whereas 2012 municipal elections took place only in the West Bank due to Hamas’s boycott.
Given this meager record, it is hardly surprising that the prospect of municipal elections to be held in more than 400 municipal and local councils across the West Bank and Gaza was anticipated with excitement. While national decisions are made by the PA president and, theoretically, by parliament, the daily lives of Palestinians are affected to a considerable extent by their municipal and other local officials.
After the initial excitement subsided, several questions arose: Why did President Abbas announce the elections; why did Hamas agree; and, finally, will the elections actually be held?
As far as is known, no serious pressure was exerted on President Abbas to announce the elections; it seems that he truly made the decision on his own. In fact, Fatah officials subsequently pressured him to cancel the vote, which he refused to do. Unlike the 2006 parliamentary elections into which President Abbas was pressured by America, this time the international community stayed out. Furthermore, as President Abbas knows, since the United States, the EU and Egypt have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization, they would stop funding any municipality that includes Hamas representatives.
President Abbas’s decision to hold the elections was particularly baffling because his Fatah-run PA is firmly in control of the Palestinian population in the West Bank. Given the projections of Hamas victories in several important municipalities in the area, the municipal elections could give Hamas—Fatah’s deadly foe—a significant foothold in the West Bank thereby weakening PA control. So why did he do it? Many opinions have been expressed, but no one has come up with a compelling answer.
Similarly, Hamas is in firm control of Gaza. So why risk the penetration of Fatah officials into municipal councils in Gaza through the elections, particularly due to projections of local Fatah victories? Again, no obvious answer.
Given the fraught relations between Fatah and Hamas, many Palestinians doubted that the two feuding parties would be willing and able to work together to bring about municipal elections in the territories. Such doubts deepened when the PA harassed Hamas activists in the West Bank and Hamas did the same to Fatah officials in Gaza. But, regardless of calls from both parties to cancel the elections, preparations for the vote proceeded.
According to press reports, Israeli officials were deeply concerned that the elections could result in a Hamas victory as did the 2006 parliamentary elections, and with it increased legitimacy for Hamas in the West Bank. Despite Israeli displeasure with the PA’s incitement and efforts to generate international pressure on Israel, the Israelis are benefiting from the PA security forces’ coordination with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the fight against terrorism and do not want the PA to be further weakened by Hamas gains in the West Bank.
The drama took an unexpected turn on Sept. 8, when the PA’s High Court of Justice canceled the Oct. 8 elections. It ruled that due to the absence from the ballots of East Jerusalem—which the PA officially regards as one of its electoral districts—and due to Hamas disqualification of several Fatah lists in Gaza, municipal elections could not be held at the scheduled time. The ruling was only temporary; the court announced it would review its decision on Sept. 21, and municipal elections might still be held in the future but not before Dec. 21. It is unclear, however, how the court can reverse its decision. Many observers believe the PA court will decide to postpone the municipal elections indefinitely.
Fatah and Hamas immediately blamed each other for the postponement. Hamas claimed the court’s ruling had originated with President Abbas and called it “political” and “illegal,” saying Fatah had sabotaged the elections because it was afraid it would lose; Fatah said Hamas had undermined the elections because of its projected loss. The suspension of elections has thus further deepened divisions between Fatah and Hamas.
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