In late 2005, during what would be the last pan-Palestinian elections for a decade and a half, Hamas leader Ahmed Bahar was driving his modest 1971 Subaru Leone, from one campaign gathering in Gaza to another. At each stop, Bahar would point to his inexpensive vehicle, contrasting it with Fatah leaders’ extravagant motorcades. He promised that he’d never upgrade: he’d never be corrupted by power.
Back then, Hamas’ "Reform and Change" campaign was pragmatically centered around key economic and security matters of concern; they promised to eliminate the PA’s infamous corruption, dramatically reduce the prices of consumer goods (for instance, reducing the price of a staple necessity like cooking gas from 40 to 10 shekels, by preventing the skimming of unnecessary taxes that went into PA officials’ private pockets), to create jobs and restore law and order.
Their 2006 manifesto avoided hot topics, such as the movement’s 1988 charter, which called for the destruction of Israel. It instead called for an "independent state whose capital is Jerusalem" and emphasized the Palestinian right of return.
Hamas’ promises worked well at a moment of Palestinian despair and disillusionment with the peace process. Camp David, Oslo and the Second Intifada were all dead. The unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was not a product of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority; indeed, Hamas claimed it a win for its own military efforts, a message the movement pushed on billboards reading "Futile negotiations led us nowhere, our resistance liberated Gaza."
There was a dire economic situation, particularly in Gaza, because Israel’s disengagement cut tens of thousands of Gazan laborers from its job market. Buoyed by its competitor Fatah divided into two slates, Hamas won 45 percent of the overall vote and 58 percent of the seats of the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006. In Gaza, Hamas won 56.7 percent of the vote.
All Hamas’ high-minded one-of-the-people talk was soon forgotten.
As soon as Hamas took over Gaza in after armed clashes with Fatah in 2007, it inherited and quickly appropriated Fatah’s abandoned motorcades and offices. Just a few years after Ahmed Bahar had boasted of his humility, the now Deputy Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council was switching cars between an armored Mercedes-Benz S350 and a Toyota Land Cruiser. Everyone in the Hamas leadership got his fair share of fancy cars, offices, and titles. Patronage, nepotism, mismanagement and capricious taxation ran wild.
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Since Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas finally issued the long-awaited elections decree in mid-January, it’s been hard to see how Hamas would kick off its campaign, let alone pull off another victory. What would Hamas – or Fatah, for that matter – campaign on? Reform, anti-corruption, resistance, steadfastness? All those slogans have now gone from tired to meaningless to ridiculous after a decade of disillusionment in the political elites’ failures and idleness.
Hamas campaigned on the promise of eliminating the obscenity of corruption. Instead, the same stench has become so prevalent, there is very little to distinguish Hamas’s government from Fatah’s.
Perhaps the Islamist movement was most fit to acquire authority, but it was least fit to exercise it. As the longtime opposition for decades, Hamas knew which buttons to press against the ruling party, exploiting well-established popular grievances and frustration. But they had no experience running a government.
Hamas restored order to the besieged Gaza, but with an iron fist that substantially eroded civil liberties. Its economic performance has been far more dismal, and the public’s frustration, even amongst the movement’s own ranks, is now at its zenith.
Beleaguered Gazans are simultaneously frustrated with Abbas’s PA, which for years has neglected, marginalized and even imposed sanctions on its own employees in Gaza to pressure Hamas. In May, that public has a chance to make official what everyone knows by heart; that Palestinians are repulsed by its current leadership.
With life far worse than in 2006, in Gaza in particular, both Hamas and Fatah are doubtful they could secure a compelling victory. "The familiar [Hamas] faces know that people loath them…they are unlikely to run again," a moderate Hamas leader recently told me, adding that Hamas’ internal polls have been shockingly dismal for the movement’s prime figures.
That leaves open the possibility of a protest vote, to punish the ruling parties in their heartlands. In the West Bank, many Palestinians are likely to cast a protest vote against Fatah, for either Hamas or a third party. In Gaza, voters might vote against Hamas, to a third party or to Fatah, but that would only happen if the octogenarian Abbas isn’t running. Many young Gazans loathe Abbas as much as Hamas.
The best service that President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas’ current leadership could offer the Palestinian public and its national cause – a leadership that has already remained in office a decade beyond its term – is to refrain from running in the next elections altogether. That humble acknowledgement is, of course, not going to happen.
But Hamas doesn’t want to be faced with a humiliating wipeout at the polls either. So it is now contemplating multiple alternatives to running directly and facing that hour of reckoning. One proposal is to form a joint slate with Fatah as a pre-emptive form of power-sharing.
There are several reasons for this innovation. Hamas wins power in Gaza but also deniability for non-performance: they win leverage to retain their security apparatus but can wiggle out of sole responsibility for the civilian population. The movement knows that a full Hamas government would be internationally boycotted, by the Biden administration as well, and therefore Gaza would be stuck in the same deteriorating stalemate post-elections as it is now.
A joint list – leading to a joint government which would endorse both non-violence and the bilateral agreements with Israel from Oslo onwards – would be far more convenient for the EU as well. Jordan and Egypt favor that arrangement too, and are pushing for it.
However, some Fatah leaders have publicly objected to the idea, whether because they loathe Hamas, or because they see a joint list as erasing voter choice and therefore being undemocratic. Those objections mean its chances are slim.
Two other proposals are gaining traction in Hamas. One is to form a slate of independent technocrats sympathetic to, but disassociated from, the movement. This was Hamas’ choice in the 2016 municipal elections, until they were canceled in Gaza.
The other is to form a political party formally distant from the movement’s armed wing and its militant rhetoric, to preempt an international boycott like that of 2006. In 1996, Hamas formed such party, called the party of "National Islamic Salvation," to compete in the PLC election. After its candidates, including prominent figures like Ismael Haniyeh, lost the election, Hamas disavowed the party, and it quickly dissolved.
While Hamas is gaming out what would be its most favorable outcomes and what it can do, pragmatically, to get there, the same spirit of pragmatism is less visible in Fatah. As long as Abbas holds a monopoly on decision-making, the menu is tried and old, even though a win is essential to block a political comeback by exiled-in-Dubai Mohammed Dahlan’s loyalists.
Fatah seems to be leaning in on bribes and comforting words to win over Gazan votes. As soon as the election was called, the PA started softening its tune on Gaza; last week, PA minister Ahmed Majdalani instantly promised that "all the problematic issues" regarding Gaza would soon be resolved – that means Abbas’ blanket imposition of sanctions on Gaza in 2018 which included budget cuts for PA employees and services, even a reduced fuel supply for Gaza’s power plant.
However, the closer elections get, the divsions within Fatah over power and successions will grow even more pronounced. They could even trigger the collapse of the movement.
Regardless of Hamas and Fatah’s plans, it’s highly unlikely that either group, running separately, would secure a legislative majority.The electoral system was recently changed to proportional representation, similar to Israel’s. That means there will be no alternative to intra-Palestinian negotiations, coalition-building and power-sharing.
Elections also offer a rare opportunity for two Palestinian demographics to express themselves with any leverage – or at least, a greater chance they’ll be listened to. The first group is Palestinian youth. As elections would temporarily increase the margin for freedom of speech and assembly, it would be a rare avenue for youth mobilization outside the traditional Fatah-Hamas spectrum.
The second group is diaspora Palestinians, long confined to the status of a symbolic asset for both the PA’s and Hamas’ sloganeering. The PLO’s Palestinian National Council election, scheduled a few months after the general election, on August 31, is a key chance for diaspora representation . Rarely seen and never heard, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, whose suffering is second only to Gaza’s, will have PNC representation, and therefore a voice, increasing their value to politicians keen to earn their votes.
The most prominent hurdle to Palestinian democracy is whether the international community will even acknowledge the results of the elections and engage constructively with the government it produces – even if includes representatives deemed as terror-supporters, from Hamas or the Popular Front to Liberate Palestine. The EU and US policy of choosing partners, of conferring legitimacy on certain actors and withholding it from others has contributed substantially to creating and maintaining a fragmented Palestinian polity.
To see how this could play out, take the recent example of Trump’s last-minute decision to put Yemen's Houthis on the terror list.
Despite committing unforgivable atrocities and war crimes, mainstream humanitarian groups including the UN and ex-Obama officials like Rob Malley have argued that blacklisting Houthis is an act of grandstanding, because sanctioning any area under Houthi control is a collective punishment of the Yemeni civilians who are already suffering malnutrition, famine and disease. They argue that listing the Houthis will also hurt efforts to end the war.
Opposing the formal sanctioning of the Houthis as terrorists does not make one a pro-Houthi sympathizer or apologist. Rather, it foregrounds suffering Yemeni civilians as the key subject for international action. Uncomfortable though it may appear, neutrality towards all warring Yemeni parties is paramount towards ending the population’s misery.
The same inference should be applied to Palestinian politics, where blacklisting unfavorable groups furthers the general population’s suffering and deepens national division.
The upcoming elections, if conducted according to democratic norms, will produce a legitimate representative Palestinian government, one that all parties, from its neighbor Israel to the EU and the U.S., should engage with constructively, for the sake of alleviating the suffering of a slowly dying population – regardless of what factions that government includes.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2