Hamas talks local Gaza elections — in apparent push for general Palestinian ballot

While PA leader Abbas is in Egypt attending regional summit, pressure mounts throughout Palestinian territories to end his ‘culture of decrees’ and hold elections

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Hamas officials at a conference to discuss local elections in the Gaza Strip on August 14, 2023. (via Shehabnews.com)
Hamas officials at a conference to discuss local elections in the Gaza Strip on August 14, 2023. (via Shehabnews.com)

Hamas, the terror group ruling over the Gaza Strip, organized on Monday a broad “consultative meeting” to discuss local elections in the Palestinian enclave. The meeting was attended by dozens of political and civil figures, to emphasize the importance of the step, according to the Hamas-affiliated Shehab news website.

Hamas indicated it viewed the step as a prelude to holding general elections throughout the Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank, as it has demanded repeatedly in the past years — most recently in a reconciliation meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt.

Zakaria Abu Muammar, head of Hamas’s National Relations Office, declared at the meeting on Monday: “Hamas, with this inclusive meeting, is looking to build a national consensus among the people and the factions in the Gaza Strip to support local elections.

“These elections will be an important and pivotal step to build towards a larger national consensus, and consolidate the unity of the Palestinian people and their lands,” he added.

Abu Muammar stressed that “local elections are a substitute for the national ones that were canceled,” referencing the parliamentary elections that Abbas called off in April 2021. “Ever since, we have been in consultation with all factions, and reached an agreement [for local elections] that reflects the general national position.”

Hamas is aware that, according to polls, if elections were held at the broader level today, its leader Ismail Haniyeh would likely win by a large margin over Mahmoud Abbas, given the growing discontent with the rule of the latter.

Akram Rajoub, who served until August 10, 2023 as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Jenin governor. (WAFA)

Abbas has slowly ceded to domestic and external pressures to increase democratic participation within the PA and put an end to what one of his former aides described as “a culture of decrees,” whereby Abbas makes political decisions in the West Bank by autocratic ruling and without popular consultation.

Last Thursday, Abbas ordered the removal of 12 of the 16 regional governors in the West Bank and Gaza. The four governors fired in the Gaza Strip only had a symbolic role, since the PA was violently booted from the coastal enclave in 2007 by Hamas.

In the West Bank, however, Abbas ordered the removal of eight governors – Jenin, Nablus, Qalqilya, Tulkarem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Tubas, and Jericho. Akram Rjoub, the dismissed Jenin governor, said to The Times of Israel that the governors were moved into retirement by the president in a “completely natural decision within his competencies.” Rjoub also hailed the announced elections in the Gaza Strip as a “positive development” if candidates from Fatah are allowed to participate.

The dismissal of the governors was viewed by several observers with skepticism and was largely seen as a populist decision. “It gives the authority a new face, which is important, particularly as the governors are in charge of security matters,” Palestinian political analyst Jehad Harb said to Arabnews. “But it won’t change anything really. Abbas is trying to rebuild some public trust, but it will take much more.”

Hassan Asfour, a former aide to Abbas and current editor of Palestinian political site Amad, wrote in an editorial that the names of the dismissed governors were unknown to most people, and so were their accomplishments during their tenures — which were twice as long as they should have been.

In order to avoid filling government positions with “people who don’t understand their area of responsibility,” Asfour called to “overturn the current central appointment system, and for direct elections for local governors, similarly to many other countries.”

“Electing governors is more important to citizens than electing their representatives in parliament, since the local governorates are the main pillars for strengthening governance,” Asfour wrote.

This, in Asfour’s words, would be a way to establish direct accountability and increase the personal responsibility of officials, and would put an end to Abbas’s “culture of decrees” by nurturing a “culture of elections.”

In a further potential move to curry popular demand, rumors were published last week that Abbas was considering a possible government reshuffle and the appointment of a new prime minister, to replace the incumbent Muhammad Shtayyeh, for whom support had been dwindling.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas leads a meeting of reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas in Egypt on July 30, 2023. (WAFA)

These local developments have taken place while Abbas has been occupied with broader regional issues away from home. Since Sunday, Abbas has been in the coastal Egyptian city of El-Alamein, attending a tripartite Egyptian-Jordanian-Palestinian summit. The meeting, which brings together Abbas, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah II, is officially intended to deal with various regional issues.

Palestinian sources quoted by Haaretz claimed that the three leaders will also seek to coordinate a response to the ongoing talks between the United States and Saudi Arabia regarding a possible normalization deal with Israel.

Abbas is reportedly trying to formulate a single message with the two Middle East countries, to convey that any deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia must involve significant steps toward the Palestinians, according to Haaretz.

Abbas’s office also reported the possibility that a senior Saudi official may participate in the summit, or that the meeting’s conclusions may be submitted to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

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