What happened to Palestinian municipal elections?
Palestinian municipal elections were suspended a month before they were supposed to take place, and no one seems to care
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Palestinian municipal elections have been suspended, perhaps indefinitely. After initially being scheduled for October, they were suspended by a court. Some think they may still take place in early 2017 and a court has ruled that Gaza does not have to be included. They have been called a “referendum on Mahmoud Abbas’ rule.” I went to look for answers, conducted interviews and delved back into history to see what it all means. A shortened version of this appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine.
Mutaz Adawi looks up from his nargillah. “They just want to make it so Fatah will win.” At a restaurant overlooking Beit Jala, the sprawling mostly Christian suburb of Bethlehem, twenty-five year old Adawi is discussing the recent news that municipal elections have been suspended in the Palestinian Authority. If the elections are eventually held, he’s nonplussed. “It won’t change anything on the ground, sometimes you want to vote against Fatah, so you vote Hamas as a protest vote, from Oslo people wanted Fatah but we had 20 years of the same crap, so the idea is to punish Fatah and so they vote Hamas, or they vote left, anyone but Fatah some say.”
On September 8 the Palestinian High Court suspended local elections that were to be held across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They would have been the first elections contested by both Hamas and Fatah since 2006. 416 municipalities were supposed to be up for election. However only 196 of those were being contested by multiple candidate lists. In total 860 electoral lists registered to compete for 3,818 seats. A Facebook group calling itself the Palestine Project followed by 23,000 people, 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 and to postpone them 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 outpolled 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. In a sense local elections, like student elections on Palestinian campuses, are a bellwether for national support for Fatah, Hamas and the other leading Palestinian factions,
When municipal terms expired in 2010 elections were postponed until 2012. The cancellation led to internal opposition to Palestinian Authority President Abbas. Abbas’ own term in office was supposed to end in 2009 but elections for his office have also been postponed. PLC member Hasan Khreisheh accused the PA of delaying the elections on purpose. “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,” PA Minister of local Governance Qarasmeh responded in a 2010 Maan article. Khreisheh, like many other Palestinians, felt that the split with Hamas was deeply harming the Palestinian cause.
In West Bank voting that year, which Hamas boycotted, Fatah candidates unsurprisingly swept most of the councils. In some areas, such as Abu Dis or Anin, opposition groups on the left such as the DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine), 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 Mahmoud 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.” An example of the authoritarianism can be seen in the assassination attempt in 2014 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 Palestinian 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 Palestinian former advisor to the 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 (e.g., commitment to past agreements with Israel) 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 (PA) — is bound to raise policy challenges for the international community.” 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 Mohamed Dahlan, the former Fatah leader in the Strip who now lives in the UAE but who wants to make a comeback to secede Abbas. Al-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 Commission chair Hanna Nasser was optimistic that the vote would go forward. He travelled to Gaza via Israel’s 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. “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 and posted on their website noted that 65% of Palestinians were dissatisfied with Abbas and wanted him to step down. “These results suggest that there is considered dissatisfaction directed at Abbas personally, which makes him less popular than Fatah more broadly.” The author said 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 who is knowledgeable of the Palestinian Authority leadership’s internal politics welcomed the announcement of elections. “Frankly speaking, elections are the only means the Palestinian have to address the current split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Aren’t the people the source of all powers? The local elections were meant to convince the public that elections are possible,” he says. The concept was 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.”
But on the ground, the expectations were being met with reality. In mid-August the IDF, with information from the Shin Bet, arrested Sheikh Hussein Abu Kuweik in the al-Amari refugee camp. The camp adjoins the main road leading from Qalandiah to the heart of Ramallah. 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 rocket which Hamas attempted to rain down on Israel during the war. Abu Kuweik was supposed to be Hamas’s representative on the Central Elections Commission. His arrest was condemned 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 Amari camp was recovering from Abu Kuweik’s arrest, two Palestinian Authority 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, who 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 (a similar incident in early October in Balata refugee camp has led for calls to oust Abbas and the PA). Hamdallah formed a committee of inquiry, according to reports, but it was clear that many blamed Fatah for what had transpired. Fatah was also blamed for removing names of women from lists and there was an ongoing hunger strike by six young men detained in PA prisons.
Jerusalem also became a major issue in the local elections as they approached in September. According to Zananiri, “Jerusalem was and continues to be the most important issue in Palestinian politics and discourse.” In 2006 then Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had allowed the several hundred thousand Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote in PA elections, although Hamas was barred from campaigning in the city. However in 2016 that was not the case and Palestinian activists petitioned the Palestinian high court to suspend the elections if Jerusalem was not included. “In their appeal demanding the postponement of elections the Palestinian Bar Association noted that hold the elections under the given circumstances would violate the legal and political position the Palestinian leadership has always endorsed vis-à-vis the status of East Jerusalem being an integral part of the Palestinian territories Israel occupied in the June 1967 war.”
According to Zananiri and others, the issue of Jerusalem was well known when the elections were planned and it was known there would be no voting in East Jerusalem, which is controlled by Israel. “It was a tactical move which I don’t think will have real legal ramifications since elections haven’t taken place yet.”
However for Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist with Al-Monitor, the issue of Jerusalem is important because the city has been without representation in Palestinian affairs. After Oslo Palestinians were supposed to be able to vote from East Jerusalem. “Israel said it would allow Palestinians to be nominated and vote absentee, in my humble opinion, the one city is that in East Jerusalem, it suffered the most of lack of leadership since 1967, and since Faisal Husseini it has just pockets of leadership and no leadership was allowed to emerge.” Local elections would be symbolic and allow for a form of community leadership among the 350,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem, who mostly boycott the Israeli municipal elections. “Decisions made about their lives and future are made without consultation and municipal elections could be an opportunity and even many Israelis would welcome that for planning and police issues and yet no one has mentioned this.”
At the same time as Jerusalem was suddenly raised as an issue in Ramallah, other activists were objecting to Hamas’ behavior in the Gaza Strip, where Fatah lists were annulled by local Hamas courts. Zananiri believes this is because Hamas saw that Fatah would win in the Strip. “It is only after Hamas saw with its own eyes how Fatah managed to put its act together that it became worried of the loss. Immediate after Hamas did what it did to make sure no elections were to take place, or alternatively that elections would take place according to its agenda with no Fatah lists running in Gaza.” In his view people in Gaza are tired of Hamas that brought three destructive wars in six years on them. “Hamas continues to hold close to 2 million Palestinians hostages in Gaza Strip,” Zananiri says. Fatah and Abbas bent over backwards in order to have the elections in Gaza, he argues, allowing Hamas courts and police to adjudicate and monitor the elections.
Thus, even before campaigning had begun, the elections were seen as problematic. In some towns like Yatta locals grumbled that numerous lists all belonged to the same family or extended clan. One young activist posted on Facebook copies of the lists, noting how deeply family ties dominated them. Riyad al-Halees, a Fatah member from Yatta, told Al-Monitor that he expected “tribal nominees” to dominate. “My advice to my own party leadership is to find appropriate local tribal leaders and to reach an agreement with them,” he said. In Salfit a father and son ran on the same list. And there was apathy. “People care about it, but not to the degree that you think,” says Adawi, the Palestinian student who works as a waiter in Bethlehem who came to share a nargillah in Beit Jala. It would have been his first election where he could vote at age twenty-five. His main message, like others who spoke to the ‘Post’ is that these elections were increasingly “tribal” and less political. “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 the Arabic society you have all the branches of the hamula and he was trying to get all of them to support them, he didn’t care about his people or qualifications, the people also only care about the family name, and that’s the qualification.” It’s like a family business in a sense, being in politics. “So it’s not about the city, it’s about the family and he will represent the family.” Adawi also points out that many lists are not officially described as “Fatah” or “Hamas” but with other names, and members who are known to be aligned with one or the other. “Fatah are scared about the alliance of the left and Hamas.” He describes the public’s interests in the elections as being primarily negative. They might support Hamas just to get back at Fatah for perceived grievances or years in power. PFLP might be against Abbas over some minor financial dispute in one town. “The elections won’t happen unless Abbas and Fatah can make sure they will win…The shock of losing the elections would be a blow to Abbas.” Adawi drew attention to the role of Dahlan and Gaza, saying that he still has immense loyalty from many families.
On September 8 the Palestinian high court ruled that the elections would be postponed. Hisham al-Hatoo, the head of the court responded to a challenge by lawyer Nael al-Houh and accepted that due to the problems in Gaza and Jerusalem, the elections would violate the law if they were held. When Hamas heard of the suspension they 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. The DFLP said on its website that the public had “long awaited the response of the citizen’s aspirations to exercise their democratic right to elect their representatives at all levels.” Khreisheh also came out with a statement saying the cancellation was political.
The cancellation seems to have been greeted with quiet acceptance among the Palestinian public. A recent Palestinian TV reality show on Maan satellite network called ‘the President’ which ended in June garnered more interest than the municipal elections. It had 24 contestants, including six from Gaza, chosen from 1,000 applicants.
Whereas the public was greatly interested in the show, many seem less interested in local elections. EU officials have also been mum on the suspension of the elections. Over the years the EU has invested millions of euros in Palestinian election issues and strengthening civil society. During a EU parliament delegation visit to the West Bank in February of 2016, the EU representatives had expressed feelings of urgency over lack of elections. “Palestinian reconciliation is more urgent than ever. Elections must be held as soon as possible. A united Palestinian leadership is essential for the two-state solution and for the future of Palestinian youth,” delegation chair Martina Anderson said in a statement at the time. However the September ruling has gone unnoticed, with the EU focused on Syria and immigration issues. The UN also think elections should take place, eventually. “It is in the national interest of the Palestinian people that when such elections take place, they be organized both in the West Bank and Gaza,” said Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process in a statement.
That leaves experts and analysts wondering what the ramifications will be. “The peace process crumbled, the only thing left to us is [local] issues of day to day life such as water, planning, parking and so on. So on this level we need to have a leadership that is legitimized by voting,” says Kuttab. His two daughters have relatives in the West Bank where many are apathetic. “People understand that everything relating to our lives is political. The big problem is [Israel’s] Occupation, national issues such as economy and movement, major planning in Area C, relates to Israel.” Local elections wouldn’t change the strategic dispute with Israel. But in the absence of any movement to a two-state solution or Palestinian statehood and rights, the municipal elections were a place people had choice over something.
Where some see another blow for the Palestinian Authority, Zananiri disagrees with the narrative that the elections were cancelled because Fatah was afraid of losing. “I am certain Fatah was overwhelmingly certain of its victory. I was definitely sure the elections would take place…I was wrong, forces of darkness are still the ones who call the shots in Hamas.” 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.”