Palestinian local polls highlight Hamas-Fatah division


Palestinians vote in municipal elections on Saturday, but only in the West Bank and not the Gaza Strip, illustrating the persistent inability of rival movements Fatah and Hamas to overcome deep divisions.

The Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip -- the two territories that would in theory form an independent Palestinian state -- have not participated in an election together since 2006.

Islamist movement Hamas has run Gaza while president Mahmud Abbas's more moderate Fatah has controlled the West Bank, since a near civil war erupted between the two sides a decade ago.

Their failure to reconcile is seen as a major obstacle to any settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Efforts last year to hold joint local elections failed as the two parties failed to bridge their differences.

Saturday's vote for some 300 municipal councils in the West Bank, occupied by Israel for 50 years, has been seen as yet another sign that reconciliation may be a long way off.

Hamas swept Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 but the international community refused to deal with any government in which it participated until it renounced violence and recognised Israel and past peace agreements.

The resulting deadlock led to mounting friction between Hamas and Fatah, culminating in Hamas's seizure of Gaza in 2007.

Abbas, whose term was meant to end in 2009 but who has remained in office with no election held, has grown unpopular among Palestinians, but he remains their leader in the eyes of the world.

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas meets US President Donald Trump at the White House on May 3, 2017 (photo by: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/File)

He met US President Donald Trump in Washington on May 4 and is expected to do so again when Trump travels to the Middle East later this month.

Speculation has intensified over who will eventually replace the 82-year-old, who has not publicly designated a successor.

Doubts over turnout

Hamas is meanwhile considered a terrorist group by Israel and much of the West despite recent attempts by the movement to soften its image.

In 2012, it boycotted Palestinian municipal elections, which also occurred only in the West Bank.

The election on Saturday will involve 1.1 million voters. There will be 536 candidate lists with 4,400 candidates, the head of the electoral commission, Hisham Kheil, said.

"Everything indicates that the vote should go well," he said, while expressing hope that voters will show up at the polls.

Turnout is a major question, however.

A poll published by the respected Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research suggested only 42 percent of Palestinians wanted to vote.

Some 22 percent said they do not believe the election will help reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

Forty-nine percent said Hamas was making a mistake in not participating, while 31 percent said it was not.

As is usual, in some areas where family and traditional ties are strong, the village councils are agreed in advance and one list is formed, meaning the results are essentially known in advance.

That will be the case for 180 districts, Khe il said.

Palestinian schoolgirls walk past local election campaign posters in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 10, 2017 (photo by: THOMAS COEX/AFP)

In cities, campaign posters adorning many walls, but the vote has seemed to generate limited interest from residents with other concerns.

In the impoverished Gaza Strip, which has seen three wars with Israel since 2008 and has been under an Israeli blockade for 10 years, UN officials have warned of deteriorating humanitarian conditions.

In recent weeks, Abbas's Palestinian Authority has sought to increase pressure on Hamas by cutting electricity payments and salaries for public workers, analysts say.

In the West Bank, attention has been focused on a hunger strike by hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails that began April 17, with posters in support of them put up alongside election posters.


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