Low turnout as Gaza opens voter rolls for first time in years

Low turnout as Gaza opens voter rolls for first time in years

Gaza chief Haniyeh, who had previously barred registration efforts, hails drive as key step forward even as Hamas-Fatah talks stutter

Ismail Haniyeh, former Hamas prime minister, in the Gaza Strip (Abd Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Ismail Haniyeh, former Hamas prime minister, in the Gaza Strip (Abd Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Some 16,000 people registered for upcoming elections Monday in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, a lower turnout than expected, according to the Palestinians’ Central Elections Commission.

About 250 registration centers will be open for a week (through February 18) to update the electoral roll in the Strip in preparation for parliamentary and presidential elections. Monday’s registration drive also took place in the West Bank, which is governed by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.

Election Commission spokesperson Ola Salameh said the relatively small turnout was surprising given that it was the first chance potential voters had to register in Gaza since 2005, the year when Israel unilaterally disengaged from the Strip, Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported.

The last parliamentary vote in Gaza and the West Bank was held in 2006, when Hamas rose to power in a stunning defeat of Fatah, sparking an internecine war between the factions.

While Palestinian law requires elections to be held within three months of completing the registration drive, no date has been set for voting, and disagreements have repeatedly prevented elections from taking place in the past.

A fresh round of elections are viewed as a step toward Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. The two parties signed a reconciliation deal nearly two years ago, but it has yet to be implemented and the particulars of the agreement remain undefined.

Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Gaza, met Monday with Central Elections Commission chief Hanna Nasser. “We want to make this step a beginning to end the split [between Fatah and Hamas] and to achieve reconciliation,” Haniyeh said according to Ma’an. Haniyeh’s regime has previously barred the electoral body from operating in Gaza.

Fatah and Hamas have been meeting in the Egyptian capital Cairo this week to try hammer out a reconciliation agreement.

But even as voter registration began, Hamas and Fatah officials had yet to agree on what kind of election system they will implement, or how power would be shared. Talks on Saturday between Fatah, Hamas and other PLO factions failed to produce an agreed-upon date for parliamentary elections or the formation of an interim government tasked with preparing the ground for elections. “The Cairo talks did not achieve the breakthrough that we had hoped for, but they did not collapse,” Haniyeh said, according to Ma’an.

A Palestinian research center on Sunday claimed that US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro held secret meetings with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestine Liberation Organization officials, requesting that the Palestinians freeze reconciliation talks until after President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel and the PA in March.

Hamas violently seized control of Gaza from the Fatah-led forces of the PA in 2007. The rift is a major obstacle to Palestinian independence and years of previous reconciliation efforts have failed to reunite the rival groups.

Israel opposes any power sharing agreement that gives Hamas ruling authority, citing the group’s involvement in terrorism and refusal to accept Israel’s existence.

Elhanan Miller and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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