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Hamas decries Abbas overreach in setting local elections for spring

Hamas is digging its heels in over an amendment to the elections law that creates a new judicial body for electoral matters by refusing to participate in local Palestinian elections this spring.
Palestinian Hamas supporters shout slogans during a rally marking the 29th anniversary of the founding of the Hamas movement, in Gaza city December 14, 2016. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem - RTX2UZFP

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Palestinian Authority announced Jan. 31 that local council elections will be held on May 13 in all Palestinian territories — the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem — in coordination with President Mahmoud Abbas.

However, Hamas said it will not take part in the process, as it believes it will deepen the internal division. The movement sees the step as an extension of a process that already failed when elections were canceled back in September.

On Sept. 8, the Palestinian High Court of Justice decided to cancel the local elections originally slated for Oct. 8. The decision followed a lawsuit filed by Palestinian lawyer Nael al-Houh, who demanded the elections be canceled over what he called the illegitimacy of the Gaza courts and their Hamas staff tasked with overseeing the elections.

Undersecretary of the Ministry of Local Government Mohammad al-Jabarin told Al-Monitor that the government’s announcement came after judicial arrangements and amendments were made to Local Council Elections Law No. 10 of 2005. According to Article 1, the appeals courts were originally the district courts, called the Courts of First Instance. However, the article was amended based on a Jan. 10 presidential decree, and a new court tasked with examining appeals will be established when the electoral process begins.

The Palestinian Central Elections Commission is waiting for a presidential decree to begin the electoral process, after which another decree will establish the new court. Although no date has been set yet, the presidential decrees are expected by mid-February.

The amendment was a reaction to Gaza's district courts disqualifying a number of Fatah electoral lists on Sept. 8. The courts cited legal violations by some candidates such as maintaining their regular jobs while running for election.

Fatah treated the Gaza courts' move as politicization of the judiciary. It withdrew its recognition of Gaza’s courts despite all Palestinian factions having signed a Charter of Honor on July 24, stipulating that Gaza’s courts, security services and other institutions would participate in overseeing local elections.

Jabarin explained that based on the government’s decision, elections must be held for all local councils on the same day. If an electoral area fails to do so, all the elections would be postponed for four weeks. If it still can't hold elections after four weeks, the local council elections will be conducted where no obstacles prevent the process, as was the case in 2012, when local elections were held in the West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem without the Gaza Strip.

On Feb. 6, the elections commission set a timetable for the local elections, including details on the electoral process’ stages and dates from voter registration on Feb. 25 up through polling day, May 13.

Hisham Kahil, the executive director for the commission, told Al-Monitor that preparations will include all Palestinian provinces and the elections commission will start to contact the various factions that will participate to guarantee that elections will be held in all provinces and according to the law.

Kahil stressed that the special court established for the elections will be authorized to consider appeals filed before the commission. Its work will begin and end with the electoral process.

The announcement of the local election date has sparked renewed bickering in the media between Fatah and Hamas. Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said that holding elections under the prevailing division is unreasonable, adding that the local elections were disrupted in October due to the judicial and security division as well as Abbas’ interference in the electoral process.

Qassem told Al-Monitor that Abbas took several judicial and legal actions after the elections were canceled and called for holding local elections in May without consulting the Palestinian Legislative Council, the only body authorized to amend the law. He stressed that any amendment to the electoral law should be made in consensus and no party should have the power to make one on its own. He noted that Hamas will make sure the elections are held in a democratic and legally legitimate environment in all Palestinian territories, not the way Abbas wants to hold them.

Fatah spokesman Osama Qawasmi told Voice of Palestine radio on Feb. 1, “Hamas’ stance against the local elections is predictable because it does not believe in democracy.” He accused Hamas of already having decided to prevent the holding of elections in Gaza.

The last Palestinian local elections were held in October 2012 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Hamas boycotted and prevented them from being held in Gaza.

Mustafa al-Sawwaf, the former editor of Felesteen, believes that the decision to hold local elections in May is proof that Abbas is making unilateral decisions in Palestine to serve his own personal interests. He told Al-Monitor that Abbas’ call for elections is intended to deepen the internal division between Palestinian factions.

Sawwaf called on Palestinian factions to take a unified stance against this call to force Abbas to renege on his decision, explaining that elections should be held after the division ends and there is a national consensus to guarantee the electoral process’ transparency.

Asad Abu Sharkh, a retired political science professor at Gaza's Al-Azhar University, concurred with Sawwaf that the call for elections under the current division and the amendment to the law indicate that the results of the electoral process will favor one party over the other. Speaking to Al-Monitor, Sharkh also called for postponing the elections until the division ends.

He noted that the decision to hold elections in May after Abbas amended the law aims to make Hamas appear to refuse to hold elections altogether. He said Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah should visit Gaza to unite the Palestinian institutions before calling for elections.

Despite the ongoing media war between Fatah and Hamas, most Palestinians expect the government to stand behind its decision to hold the local elections even if Hamas refuses to participate and prevents them from being held in the Gaza Strip.

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