MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS MISFIRE
After Qatar’s attempt to kick-start a Palestinian national reconciliation process stalled last quarter (see JPS 46 ), the PA decided to hold a round of municipal elections in 10/2016, the 1st since 2012. Given Hamas’s announcement in 7/2016 that it would participate in local elections, this would have been the 1st time Hamas and Fatah faced off at the ballot box since 2006 (see JPS 35 ). However, the major issues obstructing reconciliation also hindered the elections effort, leaving PA pres. Abbas to explore other ways of consolidating Fatah’s power. Once the ballot exercise was shelved, Abbas reached out to Hamas’s leadership in an apparent attempt to resume the reconciliation process and to ward off regional actors’ efforts to influence the power struggle anticipated following his retirement.
Despite the campaign season’s acrimony the previous quarter and through the 1st 2 weeks of the current 1, the vote was set for 10/8, and all signs indicated it would proceed as planned. On 8/15, 5 left-leaning parties announced they would run on a joint list called the Democratic Alliance. They included the PFLP (the largest of the 5), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Palestinian People’s Party, the Democratic Union (FIDA), and the newly formed Palestinian National Initiative. The day before the deadline to submit nominations, the Central Election Commission (CEC) reported (8/24) “remarkable activity and heavy turnout from those running for election” throughout urban municipal areas, indicating a strong interest in the election process.
Hamas, for its part, was planning to support sympathetic or affiliated candidates in the West Bank, rather than running on a separate list. Former PLO legal advisor Diana Buttu described the move as a “win-win” for Hamas, since the party could claim a victory if its affiliated candidates did well and would avoid the sting of defeat if they lost.
But the election process hit some bumps in 8/2016 and into 9/2016. Although this was not the 1st time that Hamas and Fatah officials accused each other of obstructing their favored candidates, Hamas escalated the accusations, filing a formal complaint with the CEC on 8/30 that claimed Fatah violations, including “threats, summons, arrests, shootings, improvised explosive devices, and house raids.” Later that week, the CEC announced (9/4) that 163 objections had been filed against various candidates in the West Bank and Gaza, and that 7 had been disqualified, including 4 Fatah candidates in Gaza. Hamas-run courts disqualified 5 more Fatah candidates on 9/8, effectively removing Fatah from 9 of Gaza’s 25 races. The Palestinian Supreme Court put (9/8) a temporary freeze on the elections, delaying them through 12/21, on the grounds that “the [elections] must deal with the homeland as 1 unit, and with the faltering measures in Jerusalem and the procedural problems in Gaza,” postponement was in order. Pointing out that the court was made up of presidential appointees, and that Abbas had been pres. since 2005, Hamas denounced the decision and called the freeze “political.”
Through the end of 9/2016, the ballot exercise was further compromised and the temporary freeze began to look more like a full cancellation. Following a request from the public prosecutor’s office, the Supreme Court postponed (9/21) its final decision on the elections to 10/3. At the same time, the CEC confirmed that it had suspended all ballot preparations, pending the court’s decision. On 10/3, the court reversed its position on considering the Palestinian-held areas as 1 territory, ruling that the vote would proceed on 10/8 in the West Bank only, as it had in 2012, arguing that the Hamas-run judiciary operating in Gaza was “illegal.” Hamas again rejected the decision, with several of its officials alleging that the court was interfering to obviate a Fatah defeat. The CEC reaffirmed (10/3) its original position that holding the election in the West Bank alone would exacerbate Fatah-Hamas tensions and recommended postponing the election by 6 mos. After a meeting of the PA cabinet, PM Rami Hamdallah announced the govt. would follow the CEC’s recommendation and postpone the ballot, pushing it back a further 4 mos., to 2/2017. In the meantime, the PA announced (10/11) that all municipal councils that had resigned ahead of the 10/8 vote would continue work as usual until the election could proceed (see “Palestinian Opinion” below).
ABBAS CONSOLIDATES POWER
Abbas’s declining health—the 81-year-old pres. was hospitalized briefly on 10/6 after suffering chest pains—catalyzed much of the intra-Palestinian politicking this quarter Abbas’s supporters, allies, and rivals jockeyed for position in the upcoming struggle over succession expected to follow his retirement from public life. Abbas himself took steps to ensure that succession would proceed on his terms
Further increasing the pressure on the Palestinian pres. and his would-be successors, unrest and anti-PA sentiment appeared to be on the rise in the West Bank early in the quarter, especially in Nablus, where the PA Security Forces (PASF) were cracking down on alleged weapons dealers and other wanted criminals. On 8/18, PASF troops conducted a series of raids in Nablus, sparking clashes and brief firefights in which 2 PASF troops were killed. In the aftermath, the PA intensified its crackdown: on 8/23, PASF troops beat to death Ahmad Izzat Halaweh, a Fatah military leader, as he was being held in Nablus in connection with the 8/18 killings and Nablus’s population began (8/23) a general strike in protest. The escalating tensions prompted Hamdallah to meet with Nablus gov. Akram Rajoub on 8/27 in an attempt to defuse the situation. After the meeting, Hamdallah vowed to resign if his govt. failed to arrest all wanted criminals fueling so-called security chaos (falatan amni) in the West Bank, and both the crackdown and protests continued. Around 12,000 Palestinians attended a funeral for the slain Fatah military leader on 8/28, and many of them marched through Nablus afterward, chanting anti-PA slogans.
As the protests and low-level violence continued, a regional intervention in internal Palestinian politics threatened to undermine Abbas. On 8/31, Times of Israel reported that the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE had been pressuring Abbas into reconciling with Mohammad Dahlan, the Fatah strongman who has lived in the UAE since his expulsion from the party in 2011. In the preceding 18 mos., Dahlan had made several moves hinting at his planned return to Palestinian politics and a possible run for the presidency (see JPS 44 , 45 , and 46 ), but this was the 1st indication that he enjoyed broader support in the region. Although there had been rumors of regional machinations the previous quarter, current reports prompted Abbas to accuse (9/3) unnamed “capitals” of attempting to influence Palestinian politics, stating that “relations with everyone must be good, but no one will dictate to us any position or idea.” Abbas then launched a multifaceted effort to manage his succession on his own terms.
First, the pres. made moves to convene Fatah’s 7th General Congress. The party had not held a general congress since 2009, and the congress before that one had taken place 20 years earlier. A 7th congress would offer the party a chance to rededicate itself to its platform and elect new leaders, by Abbas’s reckoning, and improve his ability to transfer power piecemeal to his preferred deputies rather than to rivals such as Dahlan. Reports of the proposed congress continued to trickle out of Ramallah throughout 9/2016 and 10/2016, and Abbas ultimately announced (11/1) that it would be held on 11/29.
Abbas also purged suspected Dahlan supporters from Fatah. On 10/22, he expelled senior official Jihad Muhammad Tamliya as well as Fatah’s Jerusalem spokesperson, Raafat Elayyan. Tamliya had recently organized a conference in the name of “party unity,” which many saw as an attempt to bring Dahlan back into the fold, and Elayyan was thought to have similar predispositions. PASF troops then violently dispersed protests in support of Tamliya in al-Am‘ari and Balata refugee camps (r.c.), and in Jenin on 10/25, arresting Elayyan only hours after he had appeared on television discussing his expulsion from the party. In a similar move at the end of the quarter, Abbas reportedly stopped paying the salaries of 57 PA officials in Gaza because of their alleged support for Dahlan.
Finally, Abbas sought to counter the Egyptian-Jordanian-Emirati effort with a regional strategy of his own. On 10/23, he embarked on a 3-day visit to Turkey, where he met with Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, PM Binali Yıldırım, and Grand National Assembly Speaker İsmail Kahraman in an apparent attempt to garner support for himself against Dahlan. Afterward, he flew to Doha, Qatar, for the funeral of Khalifa Bin Hamad al-Thani, who died on 10/23. He used the trip as a chance to meet with senior Qatari officials and, in an unexpected move, with Hamas leaders on 10/27 (see “A New Reconciliation Effort” below).
A few days after Abbas concluded his tour of the region, Dahlan broke his silence, giving interviews to Palestinian and international media in late 10/2016 and early 11/2016. Speaking in Cairo, Dahlan was highly critical of Abbas’s leadership—calling his rule a “dictatorship”—but clarified (10/30) that he had no presidential ambitions. Instead, he threw his support behind Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who has been in an Israeli prison since 2002. According to the New York Times on 11/2, the Arab leaders who had been promoting him “realiz[ed] that Mr. Dahlan’s reputation and Gaza roots may make it difficult for him to win popular support in the West Bank,” and began pushing for a power-sharing agreement instead, with Dahlan serving under a figurehead president. Dahlan lent credence to the rumored proposal (11/2), saying “I’m ready to be part of any team. I’m ready to be a soldier. I’m ready to be anything, but with vision and plans and real leadership.” He also said (10/30) that he would reject any attempt by Abbas to expel him and his supporters from the next Fatah general congress (see above), setting the stage for a contentious meeting on 11/29.
A NEW RECONCILIATION EFFORT
While observers viewed Abbas’s 10/27 meeting in Doha with Hamas leader Khalid Mishal and former Gaza PM Ismail Haniyeh as part of his efforts to stave off Dahlan, the participants framed it as the beginning of a new reconciliation process. According to the official Palestinian news agency, WAFA, Abbas and Mishal agreed to establish a national unity govt. and prepare for elections. Sources close to Abbas said (10/27) that the PA pres. did not rule out the possibility of reshuffling his cabinet in coordination with Hamas. Although Hamas released a statement saying that Mishal had offered Abbas a “comprehensive vision” for achieving reconciliation by, inter alia, adhering to measures and steps “to uphold previously signed agreements,” it was unclear how this new reconciliation process would proceed or which contentious issues would be dealt with 1st.
Fatah and Hamas remained tight-lipped about the new effort through the end of the quarter, but Mishal called (11/2) for Hamas to join the Fatah-dominated PLO, saying that it was necessary to have a “united authority” both within and outside of Palestine. PLO Exec. Comm. mbr. Wasel Abu Yousef said (11/2) that Hamas would be welcomed into the fold, but it was unclear how Hamas would reconcile its commitment to armed struggle with the PLO’s dedication to nonviolence.
TRANSITIONING HAMAS LEADERSHIP
Rumors began appearing last quarter that Mishal planned to step down from Hamas’s political leadership, prompting renewed speculation about the organization’s future. One week after senior official Ahmed Yousef said (9/13) that Hamas was, in fact, planning to hold internal elections in either 3/2017 or 4/2017, Mishal confirmed (9/25) the fact in a speech in Doha, indicating he had no plans to run for reelection. It was unclear who would succeed Mishal at the end of the quarter, but there were at least 2 clear candidates in the running: Haniyeh and dep. leader Musa Abu Marzuq.