Feeling increasingly marginalized in the Palestinian unity government, Hamas is setting its sights on the defunct legislative authority, where it enjoys a numeric majority, to score political points against Palestinian Authority President Mahmound Abbas.
Paralyzed since 2007, the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) was never much of a factor in Abbas’s political game. But all that is changing now due to mounting pressure from his Hamas rivals and internal opposition within his own Fatah movement.
Hamas official Salah Bardawil said on Sunday that his movement would assemble members of the PLC living in Gaza to discuss “the legitimacy of the unity government.” Bardawil complained that the new technocrat government, sworn in on June 2 and headed by Rami Hamdallah, marginalizes Gaza in its budgetary allocations and services.
“We will also discuss the legitimacy of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas given his disregard for the reconciliation agreement clauses. [We will examine] the future of the Council if the parliamentary factions, headed by Fatah, continue to reject true representation.”
Hamas won a majority in the last Palestinian legislative election in January 2006, gaining 74 of 132 seats in parliament. A short-lived unity government headed by Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh was sanctioned by the US and Israel and collapsed with the Islamic movement’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007.
The Palestinian Legislative Council, whose members remain divided between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (26 are currently in Israeli prisons), has not convened regularly since the summer of 2006. But Ahmad Bahr, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said in a statement that the body would meet on Wednesday and Thursday despite Abbas’s repeated refusal to convene the parliament in contravention of the unity deal which obligates him to do so.
“The unity government has not fulfilled its obligations toward the Gaza Strip and its steadfast residents, and has discriminated between the two parts of the Palestinian nation,” Bahr said.
Hillel Frisch, an expert on Palestinian politics at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, doubted whether Hamas would be able to obtain the necessary legal quorum (half the parliament members plus one) to convene the assembly, given the imprisoned Hamas MPs and the inability of deputies to travel freely between Gaza and the West Bank.
Although insignificant in practical terms, Hamas’s convening of the Legislative Council without Abbas’s authorization would amount to an abrogation of the unity deal reached this summer with Fatah, Frisch argued.
“Abbas can hardly be embarrassed by Hamas more than he’s already been,” Frisch told The Times of Israel. “On the tactical level, Hamas is trying to embarrass Abbas into paying for their 40,000 employees [in the Gaza Strip], including 16,000 security personnel which they haven’t managed to fully pay in several months. I think this is what it’s all about: salaries.”
But Hamas isn’t the only faction using the parliament to settle scores with Abbas and his government. On November 10, the Legislative Council issued a harsh statement condemning the government for outlawing the public sector’s workers union and arresting its head, Bassam Zakarneh, and his deputy, Mueen ‘Ansawi.
“The group of parliamentary blocs and lists demand that the executive halt all of its measures against the public workers’ unions. They consider the recent decisions issued by the legal committee at the president’s office regarding the legitimacy of union activity illegal. The sole authorities for such decisions are the legislative and legal authorities, and the letter of the law,” the statement read.
Two days later, the Legislative Council’s secretary general Ibrahim Khreisheh, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, directly accused Hamdallah of illegally curtailing civil liberties in the West Bank; primarily the freedom of association. He also declared an open sit-in across from the Legislative Council building in Ramallah.
Abbas, in response, immediately ordered Khreisheh’s arrest on charges of “offending the prime minister.” The arrest warrant was revoked by the Palestinian Authority president on Saturday without explanation.
But not everyone puts the blame for the Palestinian political stagnation on Abbas. Munther Dajani, a political scientist at Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, said it would be politically impossible for Abbas to convene the Legislative Council as long as 26 deputies remain in Israeli prisons, 16 of them — all members of Hamas’s parliamentary bloc Change and Reform — under administrative detention.
“The occupation is uninterested in allowing the Legislative Council to operate,” Dajani told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview. “How can you hold a meeting while your brothers and colleagues are languishing in jail? it’s not a matter of quorum or numbers, it’s a matter of principle.”