Analysis |

Election Freeze Prompts Anger, Conspiracy Theories Among Palestinians

Israel, Arab states, Fatah and Hamas all had reasons to put the democratic process on ice, says a Fatah official. But according to a new poll, West Bankers mostly blame the PA, while the Gazans blame Hamas.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Protesters demonstrating outside the Palestinian High Court of Justice on September 21
Protesters demonstrating outside the Palestinian High Court of Justice on September 21, after the court froze the local elections planned for October 8.Credit: Abbas Momani/AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The Palestinians aren’t happy with their High Court of Justice. Specifically, a clear majority opposes its justices’ decision to freeze the local elections that were scheduled for October 8. It’s true that only a handful of leftists showed up for a demonstration in front of the court on September 21. But several opinion polls conducted last week reflect a wider disappointment among the public about the decision.

A poll by Awrad — the Arab World for Research & Development — found that 68.4 percent of Palestinians opposed the court ruling (71.6 percent in the Gaza Strip, compared to 66.5 percent in the West Bank).

The results of the poll (conducted among 1,200 Palestinians in face-to-face interviews) show that, particularly in the Gaza Strip, there was great expectation that the municipal elections would help heal a social-institutional-political rift between the two regions. That’s why 67 percent of those questioned in Gaza said they were upset with the decision, compared to 50 percent in the West Bank.

In a society where elections are rare and political representatives are usually immovable and detached from the public, opinion polls play a particularly important role in public debate. That’s the view of Awrad President Dr. Nader Said, who presented the results on Wednesday.

Interest and enthusiasm for the elections had only been increasing among the public in the almost-three months since the Ramallah government announced plans to hold them. And the Central Elections Commission had meticulously made all necessary preparations, until it published the candidates’ names and names of all the 787 West Bank slates and 87 in the Gaza Strip.

Suddenly, though, two petitions filed in the Palestinian High Court in early September — by the Palestinian Bar Association, which is affiliated with Fatah, and a Nablus lawyer also identified with Fatah — overturned the election plans.

Little wonder Hamas accused Fatah of panicking at the prospect of losing in major towns in the West Bank, and of using legal arguments to try and conceal its political motives.

The petitions have still not been fully heard. Nablus lawyer Nael El Kawkh’s petition will be heard on Tuesday. The Bar Association petition has already led to the September 8 court decision to freeze the election process, and afterward the justices gave the Palestinian Authority’s prosecutors time to prepare a response, which is supposed to be submitted this week.

The Bar Association made clear that it was filing its appeal on behalf of Fatah members in the Gaza Strip, after local Hamas courts canceled five of the movement’s slates in Khan Yunis and Rafah, citing improper registration procedures.

Little wonder Fatah accused Hamas of panicking at the prospect of losing in some localities in the Gaza Strip, and of using procedural arguments to try and conceal its political motives.

Palestinian justices at the High Court of Justice hearing the petition that successfully called for the local elections to be suspended, September 21, 2016.Credit: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

Both petitions claim that Hamas’ courts in Gaza are illegal and that their judges have not been appointed with presidential approval. But this issue was raised at the outset, and a senior Fatah member (from the younger generation) told Haaretz that President Mahmoud Abbas himself had decided to recognize the status quo: that the courts and police in Gaza would operate as necessary during the electoral process. The Central Elections Commission also relied on this acceptance of the status quo.

Many Palestinians have expressed their abhorrence at the lawyers and high court justices, accusing them of being too detached from the public after stopping a democratic political process for dubious legal reasons.

Positive solution possible

In their initial decision, the justices included the fact that no elections were planned for East Jerusalem. Yet the court could have offered a positive solution, believes Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a veteran political activist and founder of the Palestinian National Initiative.

For example, he says, it could have suggested naming a consensual list of Jerusalem candidates and, in so doing, challenging Israel’s occupation by nonviolent means. It wouldn’t have been an exceptional move, since 182 local councils in the West Bank already have just one slate without any challengers (136 of these are identified with Fatah).

The fact that the lawyers who challenged the elections are such anonymous, gray figures has also raised suspicions and prompted conspiracy theories.

“Four factors didn’t want the elections to be held,” a senior Fatah official told Haaretz. “Israel, because it has seen how they have reunited Gaza and the West Bank — which is contrary to its long-standing policy of division and separation. Furthermore, some Arab governments aren’t interested in democratic elections here, which present the opposite model to what is going on in their own countries. Who knows how much all of them were stirring the pot?”

He also said Hamas was concerned that Fatah might succeed at least in some parts of the Gaza Strip. “And also with us in Fatah, there’s a group that isn’t interested,” he adds, choosing not to elaborate.

Groups outside of Fatah say the Palestinian General Intelligence (Mukhabarat) is behind the petitions, since it opposed the elections from the start. Fatah wouldn’t have been the only victor, which was cause for concern for the Fatah-headed security agencies, whose mission is to quell internal disobedience. Those closest to the security agencies had already predicted to journalists that the elections would not take place. Completing the conspiracy theory is the fact that the Mukhabarat is the closest to Israel and its security forces.

Awrad’s poll showed that more than a third of those questioned (35.6 percent) blames the Palestinian Authority for postponing the elections. The difference between the West Bank and Gaza Strip is tremendous here: in the West Bank, 47.1 percent of Palestinians blame the PA, while only 16.4 percent of Gazans blame it. And in Gaza, 44.4 percent blame Hamas, compared with 9.2 percent in the West Bank.

Averaging the results for both areas shows that 22.4 percent of Palestinians blame Hamas, 7.8 percent blame Fatah (9.6 percent in Gaza, 6.7 percent in the West Bank), while 15 percent felt that “all the political factions” were responsible.

In response to a question about their main motive for supporting the elections, close to half of West Bank residents said it was for the sake of better municipal services — compared to a third in the Gaza Strip. In Gaza, more than 47 percent said their main motive was the chance that the elections could bridge the political rift and further national unity. But more people in Gaza said they were unhappy with their local council — 51 percent, compared to 32 percent in the West Bank.

About a fifth of respondents said a representative’s professional competence was the main factor in their choice of candidate. Some 23 percent in the West Bank and 18 percent in Gaza cited “reputation and ethics.” About a third cited educational level.

Only 7.5 percent in both regions named religion as an important factor in choosing a candidate. And only 2.5 percent in both regions responded that support for women’s rights was a factor in deciding who to vote for. Even fewer cited inclusion of women on the slates (0.5 percent).

Palestinian election law sets the quota rate for women candidates at 20 percent. Interestingly, 26 percent of all candidates are women and, especially on left-wing and Fatah tickets in the West Bank, there are more women running than required by law.

About 16 percent of those polled in the West Bank and Gaza responded in the affirmative when asked whether they have encountered any threats or pressure by political parties or candidates. Indeed, human rights groups have reported threats, harassment and arrests among candidates in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Several independent candidates backed by Hamas in Hebron reported receiving threatening phone calls from Israeli circles. They were told their businesses would suffer, so they withdrew. That’s the reason there are no official Hamas lists in the West Bank, but only independents supported by Hamas or combined slates.

The Central Elections Commission found that a third of the candidates were aged 25 to 35 — a bigger proportion than any other age group. It confirms the assumption that the elections would mobilize younger people outside of the party institutions. This is another important reason for the frustration over the election delay.

“This is a lost opportunity,” lamented Barghouti, talking at the Awrad offices. He also warned of the deepening alienation of young people from politics and society.

Aware of the frustration, disappointment and criticism of his stagnating movement, Abbas decided yet again to pledge to hold elections within Fatah and the Palestinian National Council (the PLO’s parliament). He has already been promising such elections “sometime this year” over the past few years. Will this year be any different?

This week, Abbas again declared before the movement’s Revolutionary Council that Fatah’s seventh Congress would be held by the end of the year, and that elections for the organization’s various bodies would also be held then. But the senior Fatah official told Haaretz that “neither electing a successor to Abbas or a deputy leader is on the agenda.”