The Hamas terror group in control of the Gaza Strip is poised to make a power play using one of its most potent weapons — the ballot box.
In 2012, the hardline Islamist group boycotted municipal elections over allegations of intimidation and corruption in the West Bank by its political rival Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority. Since then, the two major Palestinian parties have remained in a state of cold war.
Despite these ongoing tensions, Hamas surprised many by agreeing recently to participate in municipal elections across the Palestinian territories slated for October 8.
Experts told The Times of Israel that Hamas likely ended its boycott of the vote because the group sees an opportunity to gain legitimacy by beating a weak opponent — the aging and unpopular Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his divided Fatah party.
Hamas is also in a state of political isolation after losing the support of its important Sunni state backers, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and to some extent Turkey after Ankara and Jerusalem recently mended relations. The ballot box, one Israeli expert argued, is a way the group can take control of its own destiny, while a well-known Palestinian scholar hypothesized secret and unprecedented coordination between the Islamists and Fatah.
Hamas has won the only two elections it ever ran in — the 2005 municipal elections and the 2006 legislative elections, which resulted in a war between Hamas and Fatah. But since Hamas’s last democratic victory, 10 years have passed.
“It’s almost obvious why Hamas decided to participate in the upcoming elections,” Prof. Shaul Mishal, head of the Middle East program at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC), told The Times of Israel.
“If you look back at what happened during the election in 2006, Hamas believes that’s the best way to gain status and strength within the Palestinian population of the West Bank. They want to extend their influence to where the heart of the Palestinian issue is,” he said.
In 2006, Hamas won nearly all the electoral districts in the West Bank and in Gaza.
Mishal believes Hamas sees an opportunity to take advantage of Abbas’s current weakness. The PA leader is 81-years-old and is reportedly not in good health. Polls show a majority of Palestinians want him to resign.
“This is Hamas’s opportunity to ensure they will be part and parcel of any future political process,” Mishal said.
He added that Hamas has reached such a point of political isolation that “the only way to strengthen their position with the public is to run in this election.” He argues Hamas’s success in the past and its likely success in the upcoming election has much to do with its nature as an Islamist movement.
“Hamas is a party of the people, putting its efforts into working with the communities on the ground… first and foremost, they are an Islamist social group: they focus on social services, social welfare and working with the needy, especially in places where the central government might not reach,” Mishal said.
In an indication of Hamas’s likely victory in the upcoming elections, the Islamist movement has for the past two years won the contest considered the best barometer of Palestinian public opinion — student elections at Birzeit University. Birzeit is the oldest Palestinian university, considered a liberal outpost and a historic stronghold for Fatah and the PA.
“The young generation is more pro-Hamas. From experience, the student elections tend to be quite accurate,” Mishal said.
With the odds stacked against it, the Israeli professor believes Fatah may try to wiggle out of having the elections.
“It all depends on one man: Abu Mazen (Abbas). He can find ways to bypass the declaration. He may substitute it with something more dramatic, such as negotiations over the Arab Peace Initiative,” he said, referring to the 2002 offer to the Jewish state for full diplomatic ties with 57 Arab and Muslim countries after cementing a peace accord with the Palestinians.
“My guess,” said Dr. Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian political scientist and well-regarded pollster, “is that Hamas has agreed [to the elections] because Abbas, without publicly admitting it, has agreed that local elections in the Gaza Strip can take place fully under Hamas’s security and administrative control.”
Shikaki called the possible coordination “the most visible PA acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Hamas’s control in the Gaza Strip since Hamas’s takeover in June 2007.”
“At this stage,” Shikaki continued, “Hamas seems to care more about maintaining control over the Strip than extending its influence into the West Bank.”
The Palestinian political scientist did, however, offer a second theory similar to Mishal’s.
“Hamas might think that given Fatah’s fragmentation, particularly in the Gaza Strip, the outcome of elections will demonstrate the Islamist group’s ascendance and popularity despite the blockade and siege imposed by Israel and Egypt, thus strengthening further its legitimacy,” Shikaki said.
Israel imposed a land and sea blockade on the Strip, designed to prevent the terror group from importing weapons, after Hamas seized power there in a bloody 2007 coup, which saw Abbas’s Fatah movement ousted from Gaza.
The upcoming elections are slated to be held in 416 townships and village councils; 25 are located in Gaza and the other 391 in the West Bank. If the election does take place, it will be the largest municipal elections held by the Palestinians in their history.