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

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.

Illustrative: 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)
Illustrative: 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.

Under the right preconditions

Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced Thursday that Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed “in principle” to meet in Moscow. Neither a date or terms were set. But this message should cause no little discomfort on the Palestinian side.

For weeks, the Palestinian leadership has marketed to its public and the Israeli public that there will be no summit without Israeli agreement in advance on a settlement freeze and the release of the fourth batch of prisoners from earlier negotiations.

Then suddenly on Wednesday, Abbas surprisingly flip-flopped, and like a good politician, said he agreed to the Russian request to meet with Netanyahu without preconditions. That statement was likely made to please the Russians and embarrass Netanyahu, who was not rushing to say “I agree.” There was also a statement on Thursday in which Netanyahu said he agreed to meet “on the condition” that there are no preconditions.

It’s still too early to say when the two will meet or what gains are to be had from a meeting, if one indeed takes place. But Abbas, who has suffered from a highly non-supportive and even hostile Palestinian population, is likely to face harsher criticism now that he’s agreed to meet Netanyahu

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