Palestinian Discord Continues as Municipal Elections Postponed

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The postponement of the upcoming municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza has once again highlighted the seemingly intractable divide between the two main Palestinian political factions. Both Fatah and Hamas have blamed irregularities in the run-up to the vote for the postponement, while also arguing that the inability to organize elections in East Jerusalem would have rendered the result void. The burning question is whether either organization can still lay a legitimate claim to be representing the Palestinian people. For this reason, some observers argue that, flawed or not, the elections are necessary for giving way to a new generation of educated Palestinian leaders and should be rescheduled soon. Meanwhile, the Israeli Prime Minister has sparked his own PR fire by accusing the Palestinians of “ethnic cleansing” for opposing the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

According to various media reports such as this one from Ma’an News, municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza have been suspended by the Palestinian Supreme Court only one month before they were scheduled to take place: “The decision was made after a court in the Gaza Strip dropped five Fatah-affiliated candidates from participating in the local elections in the besieged enclave, a source from the Supreme Court told Ma’an. The Fatah-controlled Supreme Court said the decision was in response to several appeals submitted by lawyers challenging the legitimacy of elections that would not include East Jerusalem, while calling elections in the Gaza Strip ‘illegal’….Hazem Qasem, spokesperson of the Hamas movement, told Ma’an that the Palestinian Supreme Court order is aimed at ‘saving Fatah’ in the elections after the group dropped several of their candidates from the elections in Gaza.”

In an interview, also with Ma’an News, Hamas officials insinuate that there was external influence on the Supreme Court decision, meanwhile stressing that internal elections for the leadership of Hamas would continue as planned: “The Hamas-movement is planning on holding internal elections during the first half of 2017, Hamas official Ahmad Youssef said in an interview with Ma’an on Tuesday, during which he also discussed canceled Palestinian municipal elections and the case of a potential Hamas-Israel prisoner release deal. Youssef, a former senior adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, told Ma’an that elections for the movement’s politburo would be held in March or April, adding that after elections for each area were done, Hamas would gather to elect a new head for the politburo….Regarding Palestinian municipal elections, which were canceled by the Palestinian Supreme Court on Thursday after having originally been set for Oct. 8, Youssef said that there were ‘Arab pressures’ to postpone the elections.”

The reaction of Arab newspapers has been somewhat muted, although as this Saudi Gazette editorial notes, there was some hope that the municipal elections would signal a thawing of the relations between Fatah and Hamas: “Despite repeated reconciliation attempts, Hamas and Fatah have failed to bridge their differences and form a unified administration for the Palestinian territories. They have undergone several rounds of negotiations, and they signed agreements with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and Qatar. But they all failed to achieve real reconciliation. The latest agreement was the Beach Refugee Camp Agreement on April 23, 2014, and the failed reconciliation meetings between Fatah and Hamas in Doha on June 18, 2016….So this election was being seen by some analysts as a sign of whether Hamas and Fatah could take a significant step towards reconciliation…. Establishing a Palestinian national unity government that consists of all factions will just have to wait.”

Jordan Times’s Musa Keilani worries that the two main Palestinian political factions are playing a game which disempowers and further frustrates the Palestinian people, who have a new generation including many who are talented and qualified to replace the current political class: “Hamas boycotted the 2012 municipal elections, accusing its main rival, Fateh, of lacking transparency. Now Fateh is accusing Hamas of lack of transparency in conducting the nomination process among the candidates in Gaza. And the price is being paid by the rest of the Palestinians who have been denied a chance to participate in fair elections since 2006. No democratic elections have been held to choose representatives within the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords of 1993. Within the West Bank, or in the diaspora, legislative bodies of the Palestine Liberation Organization have been the same for tens of years. This political stagnation does not befit the image of the Palestinian people, with the highest rate of university graduates and political scientists within the Arab world. Municipal elections could be one conduit for political rejuvenation in the occupied territories; they might spark hope for an alternative to what is being inflicted upon the new generations.”

The decision to suspend the municipal elections has also attracted the attention of Israeli commentators, including Arutz Sheva’s David Singe, who views the current stand-off between the two Palestinian political parties as a validation of the idea that Israel lacks a viable peace partner: “The United Nations effort to create a second Arab State in former Palestine – in addition to Jordan – has suffered another death blow following the Palestinian Supreme Court ordering the suspension of local elections in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the Gaza Strip scheduled for October 8….In the absence of a popularly elected Government exercising complete authoritative and legislative control over the Gazan and ‘West Bank’ Arab populations – any prospects of reaching a binding agreement with Israel in relation to Gaza and Judea and Samaria remains an impossible pipe dream….The United Nations should be demanding that Hamas and the PLO end their decade-long occupation of power by allowing their respective populations the right to vote in internationally supervised elections.”

Some wonder whether a Hamas victory would have been more beneficial for Israel, considering the demands that governing would place on the organization. However, as Mordechai Kedar, also writing for Arutz Sheva, points out, the postponement of the elections means that one needs to wait longer to find out the answer: “The most important issue in this election campaign is the question of whether Hamas has changed from a religious Jihad movement that sanctifies being anti-Israel to a regional authority that sees to water supply and sanitation….The gap between his aspirations and reality is the reason Mashaal is constantly spouting bombastic declarations….So is Hamas good or bad for Israel? Does it or does it not serve Israel’s best interests? Is it good or bad to allow Hamas to participate in the Judea and Samaria local elections? The elections, however, have been postponed and it is quite possible that we will never know the complete answers to our questions.”

Meanwhile, the Israeli government has its own issues to deal with, following a statement by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in which he suggests that the Palestinians are calling for the “ethnic cleansing” of Israelis currently living in the Occupied Territories. That charge has been condemned by the UN Secretary General, who, according to this Times of Israel report, called it “unacceptable”: “Speaking before the UN Security Council, Ban said Netanyahu’s portrayal of ‘those who oppose settlement expansion as supporters of ethnic cleansing’ was ‘disturbing,’ joining others in condemning the Israeli prime minister for the video….Ban added that ‘the international community, including the Security Council and the Middle East Quartet, universally views the expansion of settlements as an obstacle to peace.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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