Will Hamas Participation in West Bank Elections Mend Political Rift?

Optimists hope that Hamas' participation in elections for the first time in ten years will pave the way for a new Palestinian government, but it’s still unclear how tolerant Fatah will be and whether Israel will intervene.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Election officials prepare to count ballots after the polls closed for municipal elections at a polling station in the West Bank city of Hebron October 20, 2012.Credit: Reuters
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

In a surprise move, Hamas announced Friday last week that it would take part in elections for local councils and municipalities in the West Bank, scheduled for October 8. Three weeks after the Palestinian Authority formally announced the date of these elections, one unknown has been removed: the geographical factor. Elections will take place simultaneously on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. The Hamas announcement was welcome, since the group’s participation is interpreted as a concrete step towards annulling the political and institutional rift between the two parts of the Palestinian entity.

The decision was seen as a revival of attempts to heal the political split, which has proven to be increasingly futile. Spokesmen of left-wing organizations expressed their appreciation and wishes that this would pave the way for holding general elections for the legislative assembly as well as the formation of a more representative government. However, there are still numerous unknown issues surrounding the elections.

The immediate challenge is not only the one facing the de facto Gaza government, which has for years been denying Fatah members the opportunity to hold memorial events on the anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death or to commemorate Fatah’s founding. The Hamas government has been forcefully dispersing demonstrations held by tiny groups of leftists or youth calling for an end to the political division. The challenge also confronts the government in Ramallah and its security apparatus, which is dominated by Fatah. During annual elections for student unions, Islamist activists are often detained by Palestinian security forces. The latter will now be required to allow Hamas supporters and candidates to operate unhindered. Hamas spokespersons and their associates are not interviewed or included on radio or TV, and this will have to change now. Hamas media outlets in Gaza will have to cover Fatah as well.

Representatives of different groups in Gaza took an oath of honor last week, promising to abide by Palestinian elections rules and to respect candidates and any agreements that are made, as well as the election results and the decisions of the central elections committee.

Election campaigns are periods of more intense social engagement by nature. Local elections can attract people who are apolitical, disappointed or despairing more than general elections, since they more directly impact people’s daily lives. Assemblies, ideas for improvement, public questioning of officials, anticipation of their answers and media coverage are all part and parcel of elections. Both municipal and national officials will have to give answers. Despite the overall reduction in support for political organizations, one can still expect that the main local groups vying for office will be identified with the national political ones.

During election campaigns, civic and political awareness increase, including a sensitivity to civic rights and the duties of the rulers. Women's participation as voters and candidates also gets special attention. This is precisely why civil society activists push for holding regular elections, even with the knowledge that they cannot be truly free while held under conditions of an Israeli occupation and Palestinian dependence on foreign financial support.

In the last local elections, in 2012, when Hamas announced it would not participate, all sides avoided a major headache: possible punitive steps by Israel and donor states in the event of a victory by the Islamist party. In the first local elections held by the Palestinian Authority at the end of 2004 and beginning of 2005, Hamas’ change and reform list won a majority in half of the local councils on the West Bank and Gaza. Donor states, headed by the U.S., froze their donations to those local councils.

There were claims that the PA ministry of local government was also tight-fisted when it came to allocating these councils resources. During the general elections in 2006, following Hamas' victory, Israel responded with a wave of arrests of Hamas representatives in the West Bank, as well as freezing the transfer of money collected as customs paid on goods imported into Palestinian areas through border crossings controlled by Israel. Donor states froze their direct contributions to the Palestinian Authority. Three residents of East Jerusalem who were on the Hamas list, as well as a resident who had served in the Hamas government of Ismail Haniyeh, were arrested. Their Jerusalem residence permits were revoked and they were expelled to Ramallah.

The challenge of these elections is therefore also directed at Israel and donor states. Will they intervene again in an internal Palestinian democratic process, in effect foiling it? Will the fear that they do so impact voters, and how? Will it have a chilling effect, with people voting for those who will not be hurt by reprisals? Will there be suitable candidates who refuse to join a list out of fear of Israeli reprisals?

In 2012, there were lists associated with a coalition of leftist organizations, including the Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Will voters feel that these are now also an Israeli target, as indicated by an increase of administrative detentions of PFLP activists? Perhaps the opposite will happen, with people voting for a list that may be impacted by reprisal arrests as an act of defiance, even when these voters do not necessarily identify with this list.

Hamas is well aware of these risks. Early signs indicate that it won’t field lists and candidates who are directly associated with Hamas, at least not in the West Bank. In the week since Hamas announced it would take part in the elections, Palestinian media have reported that Hamas would take part in “national” lists, i.e. ones in which other groups are included, as well as clan-based and “technocratic” lists. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said last Wednesday that Hamas would run lists of experts and professionals in order to better serve the public. But will Israel treat them as such?

Israel’s punitive measures in 2005 and 2006 allowed and still allow Hamas to always blame its failures on obstacles placed in its path by Israel and the world. This claim is hard to substantiate or disprove. In any case, the ability of the Hamas government to continue and manage Gaza or stay relevant despite all the international and Israeli hurdles it faces creates — especially in the West Bank — an impression or image of a movement more capable of ruling, which can demonstrate its rule even when faced with such harsh circumstances. Will this affect voters on the West Bank as well? These questions only emphasize how even in local Palestinian elections, considerations cannot be disconnected from the external circle of Israeli control and international supervision.

In 2012, Hamas explained its non-participation on a lack of transparency and the persecution of its people by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Elections therefore only took place in the West Bank, which was very convenient for Fatah at the time. It didn’t have to put the popularity of the movement and its candidates to the test, as well as its 2006 promise that it had learned from past mistakes. That year, when it lost, the general conclusion was that voters had punished the movement for corruption, nepotism, incompetence, lack of interest in the general public as well as a gap between its combative words and its intentions and actions.

Most people who voted for Hamas, analysts concluded, did not do so for its religious-ideological platform. Fatah promised to improve the situation and change its ways, but public opinion surveys indicate that the image of the Palestinian Authority and the political and social classes it relies on has remained unchanged. They are still identified with corruption and lack of care.

Fatah is known for its numerous internal rivalries. In several major cities there were more than two lists of Fatah and associated groups in the 2012 election. If its main rival had participated, its lack of cohesion would have ended in many defeats at the ballot box, as was the case in local elections and in the first general elections for the legislative assembly in 2006. Under conditions of persecution and in the underground, Hamas manages to hold regular elections for its leadership. Fatah is unable to do so — internal divisions led to a cancellation of elections for local governments in 2010 and 2011.

Will Fatah manage to overcome these divisions over the next two weeks, which will be devoted to compiling lists in every village and town, and come out with a united list? Will all these unknowns spur the formation of clan-based lists that draw their strength from the power and status of a few expanded families and not from the integration of professionals and a social-political message?

With all these questions, the logistic and technical state of readiness of these elections is striking. They are being overseen by a central elections committee. The voter registration for eligible voters who have not yet registered opened Saturday, also online. They will have five days in which to join the 2,006,064 voters who registered before last March, constituting 78.5% of eligible voters in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza. In Gaza, incidentally, the rate is higher, with 84.3% of eligible voters registered, compared to 74.9% in the West Bank. Tulkarem has the highest registration rate, 95.8%, followed by Salfit with 93.6%.

The registration of competed lists will begin on August 18 and will last for 10 days. The first publication of these lists (before objections can be filed and court hearings can take place) will be on August 29. The last date for cancellation of a list is September 23. The next day, the final list will be published and the election campaign will begin. It will last until October 6, when security apparatus members will vote.

The voting will be for lists and not for independent candidates. Positioning on a list will be according to a candidate’s seniority. The threshold for joining a local council is 8% of the vote. Elections will take place in 141 town councils and 275 village councils, totalling 416 Palestinian communities. The committee’s website indicates that all is ready ahead of election day. The main remaining puzzle is what the Israel Defense Forces will do that day and that week. It remains to be seem whether there be arrests, closures or raids on villages and neighborhoods, and how would this affect voters and their ability to cast a vote.