Israel's Security Service Presses Hamas Activists Not to Run in Palestinian Elections

Shin Bet coordinators have warned activists that running for the legislature could result in their being separated from their families

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinian women look for their names on the electoral roll at a school in Gaza City ahead of the upcoming Palestinian elections, yesterday.
Palestinian women look for their names on the electoral roll at a school in Gaza City ahead of the upcoming Palestinian elections, yesterday. Credit: Mohammed Abed / AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

With the growing likelihood that Hamas will be the largest party in the Palestinian parliament, mainly due to the splits in the rival Fatah movement, Israeli intelligence agents are warning Hamas activists not to run in the election for the Palestinian Legislative Council, scheduled for May 22.

In recent weeks the Shin Bet security service has threatened West Bank political activists who support Hamas with detention for a number of years if they run in the election. In a few cases, Shin Bet coordinators have made phone calls to activists, warning them that running for the legislature could result in their being separated from their families for an extended period. In other cases, coordinators came to activists’ homes late at night, with an Israeli army escort, to deliver the message in person. A few coordinators have summoned Hamas activists and supporters to Shin Bet interrogation centers. One interviewee who told Haaretz about his own experience cited the names of about a dozen additional people who were warned by one of the above-mentioned methods. The Shin Bet spokesperson refused to reply to Haaretz question on the subject.

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As the ruling power in the West Bank, including in the Palestinian self-rule enclaves, Israel interferes in the Palestinian election by virtue of its ability to arrest any candidate – and, as it proved after the 2006 election, anyone who was elected and anyone who was appointed to high office, including Palestinian cabinet members. If it is dissatisfied with the election results, Israel could also suspend its tax and customs remittances to the Palestinian Authority. That would result once again in pay cuts for government employees, a decline in commerce and industry and a rise in unemployment. Israeli authorities could also tighten theblockade of the Gaza Strip and isolate Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank from each other.

The Palestinian parties running in the election will not cite these facts in their campaigns as a reason not to vote for candidates who are unacceptable to Israel. That would be seen, justifiably, as a betrayal and as overt collaboration. But the facts are visible to the voters. There’s no way to know how they’ll make their decision in the voting booth: Will they prefer the stability of Fatah rule, despite associating it with corruption, or will they vote out of spite for its rival (“We won’t let Israel choose our representatives”)?

For these reasons it’s impossible to speak about free Palestinian elections under the occupation. There is also no chance that Hamas will “seize the West Bank by storm” – Israel, the occupying power, won’t permit it.

Reluctant to run

Every week, Israeli security agencies arrest dozens of Palestinians, and not only people it suspects of armed activity. Social and political activists who express positions that diverge from those of the PA; protesters, activists against unauthorized Israeli settlement outposts, students, Facebook chatterboxes and people from whom the Shin Bet hopes to extract information about other individuals – all of these have been arrested by Israel. The arrests of Hamas supporters in this election season, including many university students, are interpreted by Hamas and the Palestinian public as an attempt to remove from the political arena individuals with a public presence whose voices will resonate among voters.

At least one of the recent Hamas arrestees, Faza’ Sawafata of Tubas, announced that he planned to run in the election, and last week he was placed in administrative detention – detention without charges – for a period of four months. A few other Hamas activists, including former parliamentarians, have been in administrative detention for several years – in some cases, they are freed and rearrested a few months later. They include Mohammed Abu Tir, Ahmed Atun and Khaled Abu Arafa of Jerusalem (who were stripped of their Jerusalem residency status and expelled to Ramallah), as well as Jamal al-Tawil and Hassan Youssef, both of Ramallah.

It was already clear when Hamas decided to run in this year’s election that it had to consider the possibility that Israel would prevent the organization’s members in the West Bank from putting themselves forward as candidates and running campaigns against the other slates, and that they risked arrest. For that reason, the lawmakers of Hamas’ ticket in the 2006 election, Change and Reform, have already decided not to run again, one of them told Haaretz. After the organization’s election victory, Israel arrested most of them and held them in custody for a few years as punishment.

The PLC member who spoke with Haaretz on condition of anonymity was himself in so-called administrative detention for a few years. He said that participating in open discussions about the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah also ended in arrests; as a result, the only Hamas members who speak out on the topic are those living in the Gaza Strip or abroad. Last summer, for example, Youssef was placed in administrative detention after openly voicing support for the moves toward reconciliation.

Hamas has not yet decided how it will participate in the election – as a separate slate; on a joint ticket with independent, Hamas-affiliated candidates or in a coalition with other organizations. As a result, it’s far from drawing up its slate of candidates.

Elegant solution

Hamas is currently engaged in internal elections. The current Shura Council rejected a proposal to postpone the internal election on account of the scheduled general Palestinian election, but it did shorten the process from six months to two. The Hamas internal election is held in four districts: the Gaza Strip, Israeli prisons where Hamas members are incarcerated, the Palestinian diaspora and in the West Bank. The elections in Gaza and the prisons have ended. It’s not yet clear whether and how the election will be held in the West Bank (where it takes place in secret).

Due to Israel’s direct control of the West Bank, any political activity and meeting of the organization’s supporters will end in arrests, all the more so when it comes to open parliamentary elections. It’s also unclear, therefore, how and whether Hamas activists in the West Bank will be selected as candidates for the slate affiliated with the organization.

Since Hamas and Fatah decided to form “governments” under the occupation, they need elections to reaffirm their public legitimacy. Both movements are aware that even if one of them wins a majority of the votes, it won’t be able to form a single government that will rule in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Israel, as noted, won’t allow Hamas to operate as a government in both territories in the event it wins a majority of votes, and neither Hamas nor Fatah will relinquish their centers of power for the other, in Gaza and the West Bank, respectively.

Hamas and Fatah have sworn that they want to end the political division and the dual governments of the past 14 years. One solution that is shaping up is the establishment of a national unity government, regardless of the results of the elections – according to remarks by Husam Badran, a member of the Hamas political bureau, as published Wednesday on the website of the Palestinian News Agency, Ma’an. If this comes to pass, it remains to be seen whether Israel will let such an elegant solution survive.

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