Despite gloom in Israel, PA officials insist Fatah will sweep local elections — even in Gaza
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Analysis

Despite gloom in Israel, PA officials insist Fatah will sweep local elections — even in Gaza

Abbas's movement is confident of trouncing its Islamist rival on October 8, and says it has the electoral math to prove it

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote during local elections at a polling station in the West Bank city of Ramallah, October 20, 2012. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote during local elections at a polling station in the West Bank city of Ramallah, October 20, 2012. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

RAMALLAH — Among the most urgent challenges that await the new mayors of the adjacent West Bank cities of Ramallah and El Bireh is a prosaic one: traffic congestion. The traffic jams, which are increasing in frequency and severity, are a blight on the downtowns, as well as the suburbs. And although there are new buildings, shopping malls and restaurants opening in the two ever-growing cities all the time, the road infrastructure seems stuck in the 1970s. Some argue that’s caused by the Israeli occupation, but this problem, at least, cannot be so easily laid at the feet of the “Israeli enemy.”

The new mayors will be chosen in local elections throughout the West Bank and Gaza on October 8, and winning those races is now the most urgent task faced by the top leadership of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.

When the elections are over, of course, they will be able to turn their attention to other issues, such as traffic, sanitation, culture, and what-have-you. But the main effort at the moment is focused on ensuring their victory five weeks hence.

These efforts have been quite impressive. While some squabbles have arisen among high-ranking Fatah-linked officials, the movement as a whole has maintained a surprising degree of unity. Even the close associates of Mohammad Dahlan — the erstwhile senior Fatah official expelled from Ramallah in 2011 who now lives in the United Arab Emirates and is considered Mahmoud Abbas’s main rival — have refrained from running on competing lists and are cooperating with Fatah’s efforts to win big in Gaza as well.

File: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) and Mohammad Dahlan (left), leave a news conference in Egypt, in February 2007. (AP/Amr Nabil)
File: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) and Mohammad Dahlan (left), leave a news conference in Egypt, in February 2007. (AP/Amr Nabil)

Abbas, who is not only the chairman of Fatah but also the president of the Palestinian Authority, has worked together with Fatah’s Central Committee (which makes up its senior leadership) to hand out “sectors” of responsibility. Each committee member has been allocated a geographical area in which to supervise election efforts, and especially the ongoing battle to prevent the many Fatah lists in those cities and villages from running against each other. This effort has been at least partially successful.

“This isn’t the situation of 2005,” one of Abbas’s close associates told The Times of Israel recently, referring to local elections in which Hamas performed well, “and that’s also surprised Hamas. They thought that there would be serious infighting within Fatah that would help them win. When they realized that wasn’t going to happen, they played a trick and decided not to run openly in the elections in the territories.”

Indeed, the “trick” that Hamas is playing in these final weeks before the vote seems transparent — almost too transparent. Despite the many statements by Hamas officials insisting that public opinion favors them, the movement has refrained from placing its best-known leaders on the ballot in the West Bank. This was undoubtedly done in part to avoid drawing Israeli attention to those individuals, but also, and probably in equal measure, in an attempt to avoid being stained by any possible electoral defeat. Hamas officials have said the organization will support certain lists and/or place candidates identified with Hamas on those lists. But if these lists lose, Hamas will be able to claim that it was the list, not the movement, that has lost favor with Palestinian voters. If they win, of course, Hamas officials will trumpet their victory – and Fatah’s defeat – to the world.

Fatah’s high-ranking officials knew this would likely happen when they, together with Abbas, decided to hold local elections and allow Hamas to run in them. The decision seemed an irresponsible gamble until about two weeks ago.

Israel’s coordinator of civilian activity in the Palestinian territories Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai “and the Shin Bet tried to warn us that we were going to lose, that Hamas would win,” said one high-ranking official. “They leaked story after story to their media about what would happen if Hamas won. We asked them for one thing: a little patience. A little. And a little humility wouldn’t hurt either. We told them that as no one in Israel could even predict the results of the Knesset elections, how could they presume to predict the results of the local elections in the territories?”

I asked this official: What if Hamas wins just in the big cities? Isn’t that enough for it to claim victory?

“I have a hard time understanding you Israelis sometimes,” the high-ranking official responded angrily. “If Labor wins the elections in Tel Aviv, does that mean it’s the same in all of Israel? Or do you count all the votes together at the end?”

The way Fatah counts it

Another high-ranking Fatah official, also an enthusiastic supporter of the decision to hold the local elections, said that a victory for Fatah would be “just the beginning. Then we will go to Fatah’s Central Committee, convene the Palestinian Central Council, and, God willing, go to parliamentary elections.

Palestinian supporters of the Hamas movement attend a rally prior to the student council elections at Birzeit University, on the outskirts of the city of Ramallah, Tuesday, May 6, 2014. (photo credit: Abbas Momani/AFP)
Palestinian supporters of the Hamas movement attend a rally prior to the student council elections at Birzeit University, on the outskirts of the city of Ramallah, Tuesday, May 6, 2014. (photo credit: Abbas Momani/AFP)

“The numbers are with us,” he said. “Look closely. The total number of seats for the local councils, municipalities, villages — altogether in the West Bank and in Gaza — that will be elected on October 8 is 3,818. Of that number, there are 313 seats in Gaza and 3,505 in the West Bank. Even before the election campaign began, Fatah was assured of 1,335 seats. In other words, Fatah already had approximately 35 percent even before the election campaign started. Do you understand what I am talking about?”

He explained: “We have a mechanism called tazkiya. This means that even before the elections, there is an agreement in a village or in a local council on just one list that will run in the elections. In 181 such councils out of the 391 in the West Bank, the tazkiya set up one list. No elections are to be held at all in another 38 local councils because that was what the residents decided. In other words, there are only 172 councils in the West Bank where elections will actually be held.

“In those 181 local councils where the tazkiya exists, there are a total of 1,702 seats. Of that number, 1,335 belong to Fatah. Seventy-two belong to Hamas, 60 belong to the Popular Front, 30 belong to the Democratic Front, and another 160 are considered independent. There are also the seats that will go to smaller parties such as Fida, Hizb a-Sha’ab, and others. Of the 181 tazkiya lists that were elected to the leadership of the local councils, for all practical purposes, 100 are called ‘Fatah lists.’ Another 26 lists, with large clans, belong to Fatah.”

He continued: “The other 55 lists belong to Fatah together with the small splinter groups, including Hamas. For some lists, we agreed to bring in one representative who is identified with Hamas. For example, a certain local council has seven council members. The tazkiya determined that six of them would be from Fatah and one would be from Hamas. Now are you starting to understand which way the wind is blowing?

“So let’s go with the scare tactics of you Israelis, and assume for a moment that all the Hamas candidates for the remaining 172 local councils in the West Bank, and another 25 in Gaza (there are 416 local councils altogether), win. Their number of candidates adds up to 750. So let’s say that we took all of them together and they won — and again, there is no chance of that happening, but let’s say it does. In such a situation, they (Hamas) will have 20 percent of the seats. That’s it. Twenty percent of the seats in the impossible scenario that they win everything — and that’s why you’re screaming that we’re going to lose?” he demanded angrily.

“There is a movement within Hamas that understands which way the wind is blowing, so it is reluctant to go anywhere near [the vote]. Several high-ranking members of Hamas are applying pressure to withdraw from the elections. We saw how they folded in Jenin and did not participate in the elections there in any way. In Ramallah, there is a Fatah list and a left-wing list, but no Hamas list at all. Fatah won the tazkiya in Salfit [where a rotation is expected between a left-wing list and Fatah]. In Jericho, two Fatah lists are running against one another, entirely without Hamas. It’s the same in Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour. There is no Hamas list. They have lists in Hebron, Tulkarm, and Qalqilya, and [current mayor and Hamas member] Adly Yaish in Nablus, who will be mayor in rotation with a member of Fatah.”

A Palestinian woman carries her child past campaign posters in Ramallah on the first day of campaigning for local elections on October 6, 2012. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
A Palestinian woman carries her child past campaign posters in Ramallah on the first day of campaigning for local elections on October 6, 2012. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Fatah officials, in short, are supremely confident about their position in the West Bank. How much of that is optimism? Does the electoral math stand up to scrutiny?

One indication may be the changing tone from Israel. Everyone agrees there will be no anti-Fatah “tsunami” like in 2005’s local elections or the parliamentary vote of 2006. As the lists are set and the races (not to mention the tazkiya mechanism) become clearer, it is becoming increasingly obvious in Israel, too, that Hamas is not set for any dramatic victory.

All eyes on Gaza

Yet Hamas could still rack up achievements in Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Hebron, and Tubas. (In Nablus, a joint Fatah-Hamas list is led by Hamas’s Yaish, but requires that he yield the office to a member of Fatah after two years.) In all these cities, the Hamas-identified lists are considered strong, while Fatah’s position is lackluster at best.

Thus, there are three lists running in Hebron identified to some degree with Fatah: those of Ayman al-Qawasmeh, a well-known journalist; Khaled Qawasmeh, a former minister in the Palestinian government; and the official Fatah list led by Ahmed Bayoudh al-Tamimi.

Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh gestures to the crowd as he takes part in a rally marking the 28th anniversary of Hamas's founding, in Gaza City on December 14, 2015. (Emad Nassar/Flash90)
Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh gestures to the crowd as he takes part in a rally marking the 28th anniversary of Hamas’s founding, in Gaza City on December 14, 2015. (Emad Nassar/Flash90)

Hamas has a list called Ahl al-Balad, led by Abdel-Moati Abu Sneineh, While Abu Sneineh’s ties to Hamas are seen as personal, and his list is not officially a Hamas list, there is no confusion among voters as to which faction the list represents.

Fatah may win across the width and breadth of the West Bank, but Hamas may be poised for substantial inroads nonetheless.

Yet the real story in the upcoming elections may lie in Gaza.

Despite Hamas’s iron-fisted nine-year rule of the territory, Fatah appears to be mounting a close challenge. Unlike in the West Bank, Gazans will be able to choose between two lists explicitly identified with either Fatah or Hamas. A head-to-head battle is shaping up in which Fatah may well be the better organized faction, at least in the large cities.

There is a sense of “significant accomplishments there,” said a senior Fatah official in Ramallah. “There are only 15 seats in the Gaza City council. I would not be surprised if Fatah got more than seven.”

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