Palestinians in major cities across the West Bank headed to the ballot box on Saturday to vote in a second round of local elections, a rare democratic moment in the Palestinian Authority.
Around 234 slates fought it out in 50 cities including Ramallah, Hebron, and Jenin. Another 23 municipalities saw a single list running unopposed, according to Palestinian elections chief Hanna Nasser.
The municipal vote was held in two rounds in the West Bank. The first round, in mid-December, comprised hundreds of small hamlets. The second round, in major cities, was pushed off until this month, ostensibly to ensure that they went off without a hitch.
“We’re seeing a new level of activity in major cities by independent lists and groups. Around 70 percent of lists are independent, rather than affiliated with political parties,” said Jihad Harb, an independent analyst who closely follows local Palestinian politics.
Some of those lists consist of genuinely independent political figures. Others split from their parties to run on their own. In Hebron, ruling mayor Tayseer Abu Sneineh formed an independent list to contest against his own Fatah party.
“There is a general aversion to the existing political parties. People are turning to new, independent frameworks, which are not the classic parties, to express their dissatisfaction,” said Harb.
Palestinians have not held a national election since the Hamas terror group won a landslide victory in the Palestinian legislature in 2006.
Despite numerous promises by the Palestinian leadership to hold another national vote, PA President Mahmoud Abbas indefinitely delayed the last planned election in 2021. Abbas blamed Israel, but most observers say he sought to avoid a humiliating loss to rivals within his own Fatah party, as well as to Hamas.
The Palestinian Authority leadership decided to hold local elections in part at the request of the Europeans, diplomats told The Times of Israel. The PA had been harshly criticized for canceling the national vote.
Since 2006, two Palestinian local elections have been held in towns and cities across the West Bank — in 2012 and 2017, respectively. Hamas has boycotted them both times and banned the vote in the Gaza Strip.
The terror group announced that it would boycott both rounds of the current vote as well.
“The PA’s announcement of piecemeal local elections is an insult to our national situation, and a deviation from our nation’s path. Hamas will not be a part of it,” Hamas spokesperson Hazim Qasim told reporters during a press conference in Gaza City late last year.
But some candidates are nonetheless affiliated with Hamas or considered to be close to the group, Harb said. Hamas members are likely to win some seats, but “will not exercise much influence” in local councils, he added.
“They are hampered by their formal boycott of the elections. They have not called on their cadres to mobilize and turn out to vote for Hamas lists, and many will not vote,” said Harb.
Palestinians have accused Israel of meddling in the elections by arresting some candidates affiliated with Hamas and other terror groups. Last week, Israeli forces detained Islam al-Tawil, a mayoral candidate from al-Bireh widely seen as close to Hamas.
The Shin Bet security service did not respond to a request for comment.
Palestinian political commentator Hani al-Masri said that the Israeli arrests had made the elections “unfree.” But he added that the Palestinian Authority had also pressured candidates in an attempt to dictate the outcome of the vote.
“The PA and its security forces used all of their money and media strength in service of candidates who are in their pocket, as well as pressuring some families not to nominate other potential candidates,” charged al-Masri, who belongs to a dissident Fatah branch critical of Abbas.