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Will the West Bank hold elections without Gaza?

Many scenarios emerged when the Palestinian local elections were delayed, with some saying elections may be held in the West Bank, and not in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas may appoint its candidates in the local bodies.
Palestinians demonstrate in front of the hight court in the West Bank city of Ramallah calling authorities not to postpone local elections,  on September 21, 2016. 
Palestinian municipal polls scheduled for October 8 were officially postponed after a court delayed a ruling on whether to hold the first vote since 2006 to include both Fatah and Hamas.

 / AFP / ABBAS MOMANI        (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

As Palestinians were preparing for the local elections slated for Oct. 8, the High Court of Justice in Ramallah announced Sept. 8 a surprising decision to hold the elections on Sept. 21 instead. However, when Sept. 21 came, the court decided to postpone the elections until Oct. 3. In light of these repeated delays, the Central Elections Committee (CEC) announced Sept. 21 that holding the planned elections on Oct. 8 was unfeasible, as the delays have disrupted the electoral process’ timetables.

This decision sparked mutual accusations between Hamas and Fatah over the postponement of the elections. While Hamas viewed the postponement as a cancellation of the elections, Fatah accused Hamas of sabotaging the elections. Meanwhile, dozens of leftists rallied before the High Court of Justice on Sept. 21 to express opposition and demand the court to reconsider its decision.

The repeated delays of the election raised many speculations about the scenarios that will ensue. Some spoke about the postponement of the elections until further notice or their cancellation, while others mentioned holding them in the West Bank without Gaza, or vice versa. But the possibility of holding the elections with both Fatah’s and Hamas’ approval was excluded given their disagreement over the appeals against Fatah’s electoral lists submitted by Hamas before Gaza courts, which Fatah does not recognize.

Kayed al-Ghul, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) political bureau, told Al-Monitor, “There are high expectations that the elections will be held in the West Bank without Gaza, despite the Palestinians’ disapproval, as this would prevent them from expressing their right in choosing their leaders. If the Palestinian Authority [PA] were to hold the elections this way, the division that erupted in 2007 between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would deepen. As for the PFLP’s participation in such elections, the issue will be discussed when the time comes.”

“Also, if Hamas decides to appoint its lists of candidates in Gaza’s [municipalities] should elections not be held, we would categorically refuse this,” Ghul added.

It seems most Palestinians would rather elections be held in all Palestinian territories simultaneously to maintain the geographical unity and avoid deepening the division. However, the PA’s and Fatah’s fears of Hamas winning might prompt the PA to hold the elections in the West Bank without the Gaza Strip.

On Aug. 28, the Times of Israel quoted anonymous Fatah officials saying they urged President Mahmoud Abbas to cancel the local elections for fear that Hamas would achieve sweeping success. The officials also warned Abbas that the Fatah movement would risk losing against Hamas in the elections, which would destroy Fatah.

Fayez Wardeh, Hamas’ representative on the CEC in the West Bank, told Al-Monitor, “Holding the elections in the West Bank without Gaza is possible, but it is a bad option and unlikely to happen since most Palestinians reject it. This possibility would deepen the division instead of ending it. Fatah might seek to hold the elections at a later stage, with more convenient conditions in terms of timing, laws and procedures. Hamas, for its part, would not participate in elections held in the West Bank without Gaza.”

Holding the elections in the West Bank without Gaza means the consolidation of the geographical and political division between the entities, which contradicts Abbas' repeated calls for putting an end to the division, the last of which was on Aug. 13.

In this context, a CEC official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “It is difficult for Abbas to hold the elections in the West Bank without Gaza, because he might not get an approval from the World Bank and the European Union. The latter are funding institutions working with local bodies, such as the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility and the Municipal Development and Lending Fund. The World Bank and EU support these bodies [on the condition] that they operate in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, not in one geographical region without the other.”

The source added, “Abbas’ alternative to holding the elections in the West Bank without Gaza is to reach an agreement with Hamas over the elections’ phases: Elections may be held first in the West Bank and at a later stage in Gaza. For its part, Hamas would be making the wrong decision to appoint local bodies in Gaza as such a step would deepen the division among Palestinians. It would be best if it keeps things as they are or if it reaches an agreement with leftist and independent [parties] to form the local bodies [in Gaza] if elections are not held in Gaza.”

Hamas has not said or hinted to the possibility of appointing its candidates in Gaza’s local bodies should elections be held in the West Bank alone. Thus, it is highly probable that the already existing local councils appointed by Hamas in 2007 will remain in place.

Fatah may benefit from the elections should they be held in the West Bank alone. The movement enjoys security and political influence in the West Bank, which may allow it to win in any elections held there. In this context, Hamas had complained on Aug. 27 about the Palestinian security services threatening its electoral lists and candidates in the West Bank.

Amin Maqboul, the secretary-general of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, told Al-Monitor, “The option of holding the elections in the West Bank without Gaza is quite possible. The Palestinian territories should not be left without elections. This possibility would not deepen the division between the West Bank and Gaza [as some claim], because these are local, not legislative or presidential elections. Hamas’ authority in the Gaza Strip is illegal, and all the local bodies it appoints are not recognized by the PA.”

Holding the elections in the West Bank without Gaza was even discussed by the Israelis. On Sept. 17, Israeli correspondent for Walla News Avi Issacharoff claimed that Abbas will carry on with holding the elections even if it were in the West Bank without Gaza in order to strengthen Fatah’s legitimacy, which could suffer a hard blow if Hamas were to win in some cities in the West Bank such as Hebron and Tulkarm where Hamas enjoys wide popularity.

Meanwhile, Khalil Shaheen, the research director of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies - Masarat, told Al-Monitor, “It is possible to hold the elections in the West Bank without Gaza, but it is not a favorable option as it deepens the division. However, Abbas is looking to renew his legitimacy among Palestinians both in Gaza and the West Bank. So long as Hamas controls Gaza, Abbas would not care about the situation there because [Hamas’ rule there] is illegal. Meanwhile, Hamas could appoint new local bodies in Gaza, which will aggravate the Palestinian political crisis.”

The possibility of holding the local elections in the West Bank without Gaza raised controversy among the Palestinians, with some supporting the option and others opposing it. But in this case, if Hamas decides to contest the elections in the West Bank, this would complicate Fatah’s calculations. Indeed, Fatah was surprised by Hamas’ decision to participate in the initial Oct. 8 elections and expressed its concern over Hamas’ possible win. Should elections be held, the same scenarios may repeat themselves, with Palestinian courts postponing them or the PA putting pressure on Hamas’ candidates in the West Bank to stop them from securing a possible win.