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The implications of the postponed Palestinian election

Sep 14, 2016

Update from AIJAC

Sept. 14, 2016

Update 09/16 #03

This Update deals with the background and possible serious implications of the decision last Thursday by the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) high court to postpone municipal elections scheduled for Oct. 8 – a significant event which sadly was barely reported in the Australian media. These were to be the first competitive elections in the Palestinian territories in almost a decade, and looked to see a major contest between the Fatah party, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which rules Gaza. Now they have been postponed at least until December, and, based on recent Palestinian history, may be delayed much longer or never happen at all.

First up, we get a discussion of how Fatah and Hamas are approaching the postponement from Times of Israel Palestinian Affairs correspondent Avi Isscharoff. He says both sides had something to lose in the planned poll – Fatah facing Hamas gains in the West Bank, Hamas fearing Fatah gains in Gaza towns – but that the risk for Hamas was probably higher, with signs of rising discontent in Gaza according to Palestinian analysts. Isscharoff also explains that it is doubtful that the court decision was orchestrated by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who had other recent opportunities to cancel the poll, but rejected calls to do so. For all the background of the Hamas-Fatah manoeuvring that has surrounded this election, CLICK HERE

Next up, Ben Lynfield of the Jerusalem Post argues that the poll cancellation should be seen as a blow to the already shaky leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. Like Issacharoff, he also cites Palestinian analysts who say both Fatah and Hamas feared the poll would undermine their rule, but argues that Abbas was relying on the elections to gain a badly-needed legitimacy boost. Lynfield also says that, contrary to optimistic hopes that the poll process would begin to heal the Hamas-Fatah rift in Palestinian society, if anything, the polling process and then cancellation have done the opposite. For all the details of his argument,  CLICK HERE

Finally, Palestinian affairs experts Jonathan Schanzer and Grant Rumley identify a potentially deeper political crisis brewing in the West Bank, which the election cancellation has only worsened. They particularly point to recent demonstrations in Nablus against PA rule, sparked by the killing of a suspect by Palestinian security forces, as a sign that the PA may be losing its grip on power. They say that the uncertainty over who may succeed  the 81-year-old Abbas is also contributing to the instability, and a key way to stablise things is for Fatah to show a credible plan for succession. For this important warning from two very knowledgeable analysts, CLICK HERE

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Article 1

Hamas, Fatah shed no tears over suspended local elections


Both sides had something to lose if the vote had proceeded as planned in October, but the Gaza-based terror group had more at stake


Time of Israel, September 8, 2016

A Palestinian man casts his vote in the municipal elections in the West Bank town of  Al-Bireh on October 20, 2012. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

A Palestinian man casts his vote in the municipal elections in the West Bank town of Al-Bireh on October 20, 2012. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

No one in the leaderships of Hamas or Fatah will likely shed a tear over the decision Thursday of the Palestinian High Court of Justice (the equivalent of the Supreme Court) to postpone local elections in the West Bank and Gaza. These were due to take place on October 8; the court said it would reconsider the issue in a few months’ time.

Both sides had something to lose. But, despite all the warnings in Israel that Hamas’s takeover of the West Bank was imminent, Hamas had more at stake if the elections were to proceed as planned.

This is because, at most, Hamas was expected to register nice gains in the West Bank. Fatah was likely to take the majority of seats in the local councils (3,818 in total across the West Bank and Gaza) while Hamas was expected to win in major cities like Hebron, Tulkarem and Nablus, through a candidate rotation agreement with Fatah. Victory in those areas would allow Hamas to create the appearance of a Fatah defeat — with the likely cooperation of the Israeli media, of course.

The biggest risk for Hamas was actually in the Gaza Strip, where a worrying — bordering on frightening — picture was emerging.

In at least four major cities in the enclave — Gaza City, Rafah, Khan Younis and Deir al-Balah — there was the impression that Fatah’s electoral lists were more popular, for a number of reasons: First, the Fatah lists in those areas were more impressive; second, as one Gazan analyst told The Times of Israel, “If during the 2006 elections [won by Hamas] the people demanded revenge against Fatah, this time the residents of the Strip are looking to settle the score with Hamas.” This is in light of the current deteriorating economic situation in the Strip and the feeling that Hamas is treating the residents with disdain. The organization’s election campaign was a veritable slap in the face for Gazans.

“For years we have suffered here from the difficult situation, [and] they run a campaign that says, ‘Gaza is more beautiful’ under Hamas. They tried to claim the Gaza Strip is now better than ever. Obviously, people are angry at them,” he said.

Other analysts spoke of a tight and difficult race between the Hamas and Fatah lists and the decisions in Gaza’s courts (operated by Hamas) to disqualify their rivals’ lists one after another, sometimes for very strange reasons. This happened in places like Umm Zahara, Beit Hanoun, Nuseirat and Khan Younis.

Just this morning, one Fatah man in the West Bank told The Times of Israel: “They’re afraid.”

And then came the decision from the West Bank court to suspend the elections. There will obviously be those who say the decision stems from the fear of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party. That possibility cannot be discounted. But it should be noted that, over the past few months, there was no small amount of pressure on the PA president to cancel the elections altogether — a call he had rejected repeatedly.

Does it make sense that now, when it has emerged that he has a realistic prospect of a true breakthrough in the West Bank and even Gaza, he rushed to pressure the court to cancel the election? Anything is possible in the Middle East, it seems.


Article 2

Analysis: A fresh blow to Abbas

Just a month ago, the municipal elections that were slated to be held in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on October 8 were cause for rare optimism amid the bleak landscape of Palestinian politics.

It was hoped Hamas’s participation, despite doubts about contesting polls in the Fatahruled West Bank, and Fatah running despite suspicions of Hamas’s intentions in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, would mark a significant step toward healing the nine-year-old rift between the rival groups. If all went well in the local elections, according to this optimistic Palestinian view, they could set a precedent for the holding of long overdue legislative and presidential elections that would give a fresh start to the fractured and stagnant political system. Due to the split, the last presidential election was way back in 2005, while the last legislative election, in which Hamas achieved a stunning victory, was in 2006.

On Thursday, the hopes pinned on the municipal elections collapsed in disarray amid Fatah-Hamas recrimination, and it became obvious that rather than heal the split, the electoral process has reinforced it.

After a Hamas court in Gaza canceled nine lists of Fatah candidates, including in Beit Hanun, near the Erez crossing to Israel, for ostensibly violating the electoral law, the high court in Fatah-controlled Ramallah froze the holding of elections, at least until December, on the grounds that the Gaza judiciary’s ruling on electoral matters was illegal, and also that the vote would not include east Jerusalem, which Palestinians view as an integral part of their future state.

The collapse of the electoral process is a reflection of Hamas’s and Fatah’s fears of losing, according to Talal Awkal, Gaza-based columnist for Al-Ayyam newspaper, which is affiliated with Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.

“Neither side really wanted these elections to go ahead,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “Hamas was afraid it would fail in Gaza, and that this would be a real challenge to its legitimacy.”

Awkal says there was a real chance Fatah would have won in the Strip. “If you ask any citizen in Gaza, he would say Fatah has a better chance than Hamas to succeed,’’ he said.

“Fatah was also afraid of losing in the West Bank,” Awkal added. “Both are to blame for the elections not taking place.”

According to analysts in Ramallah, the immediate loser is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who had vowed that the vote would take place as scheduled, and had been eyeing it as a badly needed legitimacy lift as he continues in the 11th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term.

A June poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicated that two-thirds of Palestinians want Abbas to step down. One of the main reasons for this, according to Khalil Shikaki, the head of the center, is that his credibility has been severely undermined by his threatening to do things and then not acting on the threats, be it to back away from the Oslo self-rule agreements or to “return the keys” to the Palestinian Authority to Israel unless it changed its policies.

“The cancellation of the elections will further negatively affect the credibility of the leadership and the political system, including the president,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former PA minister and currently vice president of Bir Zeit University.

It is now clear that the enmity between Fatah and Hamas – and between Ramallah and Gaza – is about to get even stronger, as each side blames the other for the collapse of local elections.

While Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the Ramallah court’s decision was political and Hamas websites said the move came because Fatah feared it would lose, Fatah leaders made identical accusations against Hamas.

“The judges in Gaza made a political decision, they did not follow the law,’’ Issam Abu Bakr, the PA deputy education minister and a Fatah election organizer, told the Post. “Fatah in Gaza is stronger than in the West Bank and we would have definitely defeated Hamas in Gaza.

They were afraid of the results, especially in Gaza.” He said the Ramallah court decision was “judicial, not political.”

Whether all this is good or bad for Israel depends on one’s perspective. For those Israelis who hope for a coherent negotiating partner for a two-state solution, the deepening of the split is bad news. For those keen on exploiting Palestinian division to further an annexationist agenda in the West Bank, the deepening and perpetuation of the fissure can only be a welcome development.


Article 3

The Fragile State of the Palestinian Authority


Under Mahmoud Abbas, the West Bank could now be one protest away from a full-blown crisis.

By Jonathan Schanzer and Grant Rumley

Wall Street Journal, Sept. 8, 2016

A Palestinian court on Thursday postponed municipal elections scheduled for Oct. 8 because Palestine’s two largest political factions, Fatah and Hamas, couldn’t agree on terms. The stalemate has been in place since 2006, the last time Palestinians voted, and even led to an internecine war the following year. The Palestinians, split between two separate governments ruling the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, have never recovered.

For Fatah, which rules the West Bank, things are going from bad to worse. The canceled elections come on the heels of a large protest held last weekend in Nablus. An estimated 12,000 Palestinians took to the streets after the West Bank government’s security forces reportedly beat to death Ahmad Halawa, a commander from the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, a splinter of Fatah. Halawa’s funeral quickly gave way to angry protests against the provisional government of President Mahmoud Abbas.

Thousands of participants in a funeral procession march on main thoroughfare in Nablus that turned into a protest against the PA . (photo credit:UDI SHAHAM)

All of this should serve as a warning to the 81-year-old Mr. Abbas. The Nablus protest, in particular, conjures images of the First Intifada, which broke out after a funeral in 1987, gave way to massive protests against Israel, and in the end lasted for a half decade.

There was a time when Mr. Abbas would have tried to leverage public discontent. Today, a protest of nearly any size is too dangerous to harness for the aging Mr. Abbas, who has every reason to fear that any angry public gathering could quickly turn against him.

The Palestinian Authority, like any other autocratic Arab regime, has never welcomed spontaneous protests. But now Palestinian opinion polls show a majority of voters want Mr. Abbas to resign. What’s more, since 2006, the only forms of democratic expression under the Abbas government has been a local election or student-council vote; and in each of those, Mr. Abbas’s Fatah party has lost. As Mr. Abbas enters the 12th year of his four-year presidency, even minor elections are increasingly seen as referendums on his rule.

Exacerbating this instability is the uncertainty of who will succeed Mr. Abbas. The leader himself refuses to name a successor, which has inspired a heated debate among the Palestinian elite but also sporadic factional violence across the West Bank. Armed gangs regularly skirmish with Palestinian Authority forces, while Mr. Abbas’s rivals, such as the exiled Palestinian leader Mohammad Dahlan, continue to foment opposition.

Ramallah has been particularly nervous about antigovernment protests since the Arab Spring of 2010, which brought down the governments of Egypt and Tunisia, prompted unrest, and sparked a civil war in Syria. It has so far managed to avoid the Arab Spring and its aftershocks, but under the one-man rule of Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian Authority is becoming brittle. The West Bank could be one protest away from the next full-blown crisis.

Palestinian unrest would obviously have deleterious consequences for Israel, which has managed to insulate itself from the instability of the Arab Spring. But it could also pose security challenges for neighboring countries such as Jordan, which has a significant stake in the West Bank’s stability. This, in turn, could complicate a range of other initiatives, including the fight against Islamic State.

More pressing than an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is the need to reconcile and stabilize Palestinian politics. The West Bank government needs to begin planning for a future without Mr. Abbas, and to ensure that it delivers for its people.

Mr. Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Mr. Rumley is a research fellow.




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