Suspended democracy for Palestinians

On September 8 the Palestinian High Court suspended local elections that were to be held across the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinian judges discuss a petition to suspend municipal elections, at the High Court office in Ramallah on September 8 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian judges discuss a petition to suspend municipal elections, at the High Court office in Ramallah on September 8
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Mutaz Adawi looks up from his nargila: “They just want to make it so Fatah will win.”
At a restaurant overlooking Beit Jala, the sprawling, mostly Christian suburb of Bethlehem, Adawi is discussing the recent news that municipal elections have been suspended.
Given his age and that the last municipal elections were held a decade ago, it would have been the first election in which he could vote.
The elections were originally scheduled to take place on October 8. The court postponed its final ruling on the matter until October 3. Either way, Adawi is nonplussed. “It won’t change anything on the ground, sometimes you want to vote against Fatah, so you vote Hamas as a protest vote. Because of Oslo people wanted Fatah but we had 20 years of the same shit, so the idea is to punish Fatah and so they vote Hamas, or they vote Left. Anyone but Fatah.”
Adawi, who is a student working as a waiter in Bethlehem, believes that these elections are increasingly “tribal” anyway: “Our society is a tribal society, not like a civil society. I work in a hotel, and it’s a family business,” he said by way of example. He described how people who wanted to run for office were often unqualified but got on electoral lists only because they had large family support.
“That is very tribal mentality. So [one man] wants to make sure his family is with him. He didn’t care about the other people.” In a sense, politics, as he sees it, is like a family business.
THESE ELECTIONS would have been the first by both Hamas and Fatah since 2006, and 416 municipalities were supposed to be up for election. However, only 196 of those were being contested by multiple lists. In total, 860 electoral lists registered to compete. A popular Facebook group, The Palestine Project, noted that “the dilemma for Palestinians is that even if free democratic and fair elections are held, the prospects of genuine change remain dim.”
The apathy that greeted the decision to hold local elections is in contrast to years past.
After 1967, Palestinian mayoral elections were one of the few places that people could exercise political choice.
In 1976 Palestine Liberation Organization candidates swept cities throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Men such as Hebron mayor Fahd Qawasimi played a major role in Palestinian politics in the 1980s. In the 1990s, when the Palestinian Legislative Council elections were first held in 1996, more than 670 candidates ran for 88 seats.
The 2004 municipal elections, the first to be held since 1976, were also the first that Hamas and Fatah competed in directly, although Fatah out-polled Hamas. This set the stage for the Hamas victory in the 2006 legislative elections and the postponement of future elections in the Palestinian Authority as the West Bank and Gaza became divided.
When municipal terms expired in 2010, elections were postponed again until 2012. The cancellation led to internal opposition to PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision. PLC member Hasan Khreisheh accused the PA of delaying the elections on purpose.
PA Minister of Local Governance Khaled Qarasmeh responded in a 2010 Ma’an article: “Current elections law includes holding elections in Gaza and the West Bank at the same time, but as the central elections committee cannot work in Gaza there will be an amendment on the law to allow holding the elections in the West Bank only.” Khreisheh, like many other Palestinians, felt that the split with Hamas was deeply harming the Palestinian cause.
In West Bank voting in 2012, which Hamas boycotted, Fatah candidates unsurprisingly swept most of the councils.
In some areas, such as Abu Dis and Anin, opposition groups on the left such as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), Palestine People’s Party (PPP, communist) or PNI (Palestine National Initiative), performed well but still came in second place.
Xavier Guignard, a researcher and expert on the 2012 elections, concluded that “in many aspects, the 2012 elections appear as a sanction against the Palestinian government [of Abbas].
The people were largely less inclined to vote.” Turnout was only 55% compared to almost 80% in previous elections.
Large numbers of municipalities, around 215, had no elections because of lack of competing lists.
“Evidently, despite Fatah’s mitigated results, the 2012 elections themselves are the result of a long process of restricting political expression and decision- making. Through a purely electoral analysis we can confirm that the regime’s authoritarian dimension matches its lack of political attractiveness and therefore its relative weakness,” he said.
An example of this authoritarianism can be seen in the assassination attempt against Khreisheh. The outspoken critic of the leadership and second deputy speaker of the PLC was targeted on September 5, 2014, as he was driving in Tulkarm.
ON JUNE 23, PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah announced he was appointing a central elections committee to begin preparing for the long-stalled elections. At the time, local media noted it was unclear if the elections would include Hamas-controlled Gaza, a key sticking point.
Two-and-a-half weeks later Hamas said it would participate in the elections.
Gaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian adviser to peace talks in 2001 and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote that the elections could prove a double-edged sword. “Political parties participate in municipal elections, but they typically run on service-oriented rather than ideological platforms. Issues raised in general elections [commitment to past agreements with Israel, for instance] generally do not come up in municipal elections.
“However, the participation of Hamas – a designated terrorist organization that denies the very legitimacy of the Oslo Accords, the international framework that created the Palestinian Authority – is bound to raise policy challenges for the international community,” he said.
The elections would mean that Hamas could participate in the West Bank, but he said the movement was unable to “operate freely” there due to Israel and the PA. So Hamas would field candidates on “technocratic” lists, not directly linked to Hamas.
At the same time, elections in Gaza would feature the re-emergence of the influence of Muhammad Dahlan, the former Fatah leader in the Strip who now lives in the UAE but who wants to make a comeback to succeed Abbas.
Omari suggested that international donors and the US make it clear that election of openly affiliated Hamas candidates could jeopardize funding to municipalities and the Palestinian Authority.
He also indicated that within Fatah there was a lot of resentment of the PA ruling “apparatus.”
CENTRAL ELECTION Committee chairman Hanna Nasser was optimistic that the vote would go forward. He traveled to Gaza via the Erez Crossing in late July and met Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. “We received adequate assurances from all bodies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that the outcome will be respected in any place where there are elections,” he told a press conference recently. “We hope that these elections, like previous ones, will be clean and impartial and represent the will of the people. We hope they will offer hope for the convening of parliamentary and presidential elections.”
This was a major step forward, and five other factions announced they would participate in both Gaza and the West Bank, including the DFLP, PFLP, PPP, Palestinian Democratic Union (FIDA) and PNI.
An unnamed author affiliated with the DFLP said that the elections were important. “They will be the first time that all of Palestine’s main political factions will face off in a democratic election in 10 years and, importantly, they are likely to offer some insights into the nature of the Palestinian political landscape at a time when a change in leadership at the top of the PA is looking ever more likely.”
Elias M. Zananiri, a Palestinian political analyst, welcomed the announcement of elections. “Frankly speaking, elections are the only means the Palestinians have to address the current split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip [...] The local elections were meant to convince the public that elections are possible,” he says.
By this he meant that if local elections went well, then legislative and presidential elections would follow, after a 10-year hiatus. “The Palestinian leadership was keen on underlining elections as being the most important element in the democratic process and was hoping that people understand how important it is for them to practice their right and choose their local councils, as a step forward to choosing their representatives to the parliament and their leader.”
ON THE ground, the expectations were being met with reality.
In mid-August, the IDF, with information from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), arrested Sheikh Hussein Abu Kuweik in the al-Amari refugee camp. The camp adjoins the main road leading from Kalandiya to the heart of Ramallah. Al-Amari refugee camp, like most refugee camps that have played a central role in Palestinian activism and politics over the years, has been a visible supporter of Hamas for years.
During the 2014 war in Gaza the camp was adorned with posters and graffiti celebrating the M-75 rockets which Hamas attempted to rain down on Israel during the war. Abu Kuweik was supposed to be Hamas’s representative on the Central Elections Committee. His arrest was cAondemned by Hamas as interference in the elections.
In addition, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed that the IDF’s raid was “piracy that is intended to disrupt local elections.” The common condemnation from the Left and Islamist Right illustrated the quiet anti-Fatah alliance of these two groups.
Just as al-Amari camp was recovering from Abu Kuweik’s arrest, two PA Security Forces officers were shot to death by Palestinian gunmen in Nablus. On August 19 the security forces raided the Old City and killed two men they claimed were responsible.
On August 23 the security forces arrested Ahmed Halaweh, whom they accused of masterminding the killing of their colleagues. He was beaten to death in police custody, in an unusual incident that shocked many Palestinians.
Hamdallah formed a committee of inquiry, according to reports, but it was clear that many blamed Fatah for what had transpired.
WHEN HAMAS heard of the elections’ suspension it issued a statement condemning it. “This is a political decision,” said spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, calling on the public to reject the court ruling. Left-wing parties, such as the DFLP also condemned the decision.
Zananiri disagrees with the narrative that the elections were canceled because Fatah was afraid of losing. “I am certain Fatah was overwhelmingly certain of its victory.” He argues the failure is in Gaza’s leaders. “One good thing emerged from this fiasco, it was the one extra opportunity for people to see the true face of Hamas as a movement that democracy doesn’t exist in its lexicon.”
However, generally speaking, the cancellation seems to have been greeted with quiet acceptance among the Palestinian public. Indeed, a recent Palestinian TV reality show on Ma’an satellite network called The President, seems to have garnered more interest than the elections and the commotion around it.