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Local council elections to be held in West Bank but not in Gaza

The Palestinian government in the West Bank has decided to hold local council elections, but Hamas is rejecting this announcement.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian government decided during its session on May 3 to hold local council elections in October in the West Bank, without indicating whether elections will be held in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, which controls Gaza, insists on reaching a consensus on the mechanism and the date before holding any elections, as agreed upon by virtue of the memorandum of understanding signed between the Palestinian parties in Cairo on Sept. 26, 2014. The memorandum stipulates the need to create a suitable environment to hold the various elections, the implementation of all items of the internal Palestinian reconciliation to form a government and to integrate old and new public servants, among other subjects.

The Palestinian government had commissioned Minister of Local Government Hussein al-Araj to coordinate with the Central Election Commission to take all necessary measures to hold local council elections on time.

The legal mandate for local councils in the West Bank ends in October; the last local elections were held in the Palestinian territories in 2012 — in the West Bank only and not in Gaza as a result of the Palestinian internal division.

Under Palestinian Law No. 12 of 2005, in the event local council elections could not be conducted in one day, a decision may be issued to hold them in several stages. The law seems to have been amended because of the Israeli obstacles that have disrupted the holding of elections for some time — for example, those in East Jerusalem — and will also impact local council elections in October, which are being held only in the West Bank and not in the Gaza Strip due to the Palestinian division.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had issued on March 30 a decree to re-establish the Palestinian Election Commission, which angered the Legal Committee of the Legislative Council that held a session in Gaza but not in the West Bank.

For the committee, Abbas' decree along with his decision to establish the Constitutional Court and the government's decision to conduct local elections in October are illegal and constitute a clear violation of the Palestinian Basic Law, which stipulates that the president shall issue laws after being approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) within 30 days of the date of referral. This has not happened because of the Palestinian division and the fact that the PLC sessions are not being held. Hamas has rejected these decisions.

The undersecretary of the Ministry of Local Government in the West Bank, Samir Dawabsheh, told Al-Monitor that his ministry has started preparations for the local council elections following the government's decision to hold them in October.

Dawabsheh said that the Palestinian territories include 400 local councils in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, indicating that he will be chairing a steering committee and an executive committee tasked with preparing the elections and communicating with the Palestinian Central Election Commission.

“These elections must be held since the local councils are service councils. Holding these elections is a healthy action aimed to raise the quality of services provided to citizens,” he said.

For his part, Hisham Kahil, the executive director of the Palestinian Central Election Commission, told Al-Monitor, “The commission is ready to hold any local, legislative or presidential elections if approved by the higher authorities,” pointing out that the civil register was updated in March.

Kahil said that more than 2 million voters are registered with the Central Election Commission, stressing that the commission did not encounter any difficulties in updating the voter register rolls, especially in Gaza. However, he expected some obstacles on the part of the Israeli authorities at the checkpoints in the West Bank and Jerusalem during the electoral process, such as the arrest of activists who are part of the candidates' electoral campaigns and the closure of polling centers, which has previously happened.

The Palestinian Central Election Commission announced April 26 that it completed the updating of the electoral register in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, with a total of 2,006,064 male and female voters, which equals 78.5% of those entitled for registration in the Palestinian territories.

Hamas rejected this move. Hamas PLC member Yahya Moussa told Al-Monitor, “Ever since the Palestinian government took office, it has discriminated between Gaza and the West Bank, appearing only to be responsible for the West Bank residents.”

Moussa blamed Abbas and the government for the decisions that were taken unilaterally, including the decisions of re-establishing the Election Commission and creating the Constitutional Court, and the decision to prepare for the local council elections in the West Bank and not in Gaza. He pointed out that these decisions prove the state of division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

He said that Hamas does not reject the principle of holding elections, but disapproves of the unilateral decisions by the president and the government, indicating that the decision to hold elections — or not — in any part of the Palestinian territories reverts to the Central Election Commission and the government has nothing to do with it. Moussa warned of the government interference in the electoral process, which he described as a recipe for rigged elections.

Hamas had refused to participate in the latest local council elections in the West Bank in 2012, while no local council elections have been held in the Gaza Strip since 2005.

Kayed al-Ghul, a Gaza-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) leader, told Al-Monitor, “In principle we call for holding elections at various levels — including trade union, municipal, legislative and presidential elections, as well as elections at the level of the National Council — to get out of the tense political situation plaguing the Palestinian political system.”

He said that the PFLP communicated with Hamas in Gaza to persuade it to participate in the local council elections and allow holding elections in the Gaza Strip, but that Hamas stressed the necessity of reaching a prior agreement between the Palestinian parties regarding the date of any elections that may be held in the Palestinian territories. He noted that the PFLP will continue to communicate with Hamas in order to hold the elections in Gaza and ensure the movement’s participation.

In regard to Gaza not participating in the elections in light of the internal division, he said, “Elections — whenever possible — must be held in any part of the Palestinian territories; the ensuing outcomes are service-related and not related to politics. However, keeping Gaza outside the framework of such elections consecrates the state of division, which means that each party controls its own Palestinian territory and imposes its authority over this territory according to its own discretion."

Ultimately, the internal Palestinian division remains the main obstacle impeding Palestinian democratic elections, the latest of which took place 10 years ago when the local elections were held in all of the Palestinian territories at the same time and where Hamas won the majority of votes.

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