MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS MISFIRE
After several delays over the previous 6 mos., Palestinians finally went to the polls this quarter, electing new municipal reps. on 5/13. However, rather than providing a foundation for future presidential elections and a smooth transfer of power from aging PA pres. Abbas, continuing Hamas-Fatah disputes overshadowed the electoral process and exacerbated long-standing tensions between the Ramallah-based leadership and the de facto rulers of Gaza.
Two weeks after the PA cabinet announced (1/31) that elections would go forward on 5/13, and a PA official said (1/31) that it was open to proceeding in the West Bank only (see JPS 46 ), Hamas submitted (2/15) to the Central Elections Commission (CEC) 3 conditions for its participation: the alleviation of pressure from Abbas on Hamas’s leadership in the West Bank; the cancellation of all decisions and decrees issued in connection with the elections, including Abbas’s 1/10 formation of a special elections court; and reverting to the Palestinian local elections law of 2005. But faced with obduracy on the part of Abbas and his deputies, Hamas then informed the CEC that it would not allow elections in Gaza (WAFA, 2/21). Following a meeting between PA PM Rami Hamdallah and the head of the CEC, the PA cabinet announced (2/28) that the elections would go forward as planned in the West Bank only. (The 2012 municipal elections also excluded Gaza; see JPS 42 [2, 3].) A Hamas spokesperson called the decision a “recipe for division.”
In addition to the disagreements over elections, new challenges to the PA’s control of the West Bank emerged this quarter, further undermining its legitimacy. Most notably, the IDF’s killing of Palestinian youth activist and intellectual Basel al-Araj on 3/6 sparked a wave of protests and brought to the forefront the question of PA security coordination with Israel (see Palestine Unbound). Al-Araj and 2 other activists disappeared from Ramallah in 3/2016 under suspicious circumstances; within days, the PA revealed that it had arrested them at Israel’s request. The PA justified the arrest by claiming the 3 were carrying unlicensed weapons and planning to attack Israeli targets. When they were released 5 mos. later, the IDF arrested 4 of al-Araj’s associates. Al-Araj evaded capture and went to ground in an old house in the Ramallah area, where the IDF came for him on 3/6.
Much of the Palestinian public viewed the IDF’s killing of al-Araj as stemming from Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF) intelligence-sharing with Israel. Al-Araj’s killing galvanized Palestinians, who already opposed security coordination, especially after PA judicial officials announced (3/9) that they would proceed with a criminal case against al-Araj and his associates. Approximately 200 protesters gathered outside a courthouse in Ramallah on 3/12 to protest the case. PASF troops violently dispersed them, injuring at least 11 Palestinian civilians, including al-Araj’s father. Following complaints of excessive violence and increasing anti-PA sentiment, Hamdallah announced (3/13) the creation of a comm. to look into the PASF’s actions at the 3/12 protests. However, the PA’s response did nothing to quell the public outcry. The PFLP announced (3/13) that it would not participate in the 5/13 elections. “[Our] withdrawal from local elections is the result of the PA policy in general . . . and of the [PASF’s] ongoing oppression of the people in particular,” explained PFLP official Khalida Jarrar on 3/23. The comm. recommended punishments for several PASF officers on 3/28, and Hamdallah accepted its recommendations on 3/29.
As protests against the PA continued, the election project suffered another setback. On 5/8, the National Comm. to Support Palestinian Prisoners’ Hunger Strike, formed to support the Dignity Strikers’ call for “freedom and dignity” in Israeli prisons, urged the PA to suspend the municipal elections and to halt its security coordination with the IDF.
In the end, the elections proceeded without incident. Although Hamas boycotted the polling, the party released (5/10) a statement encouraging West Bank Palestinians to vote for the “most competent” candidates. Independent candidates won 65% of the contested seats, Fatah lists won 27.6%, and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine lists won 2.77%. Voter turnout was recorded at 53.4%, roughly equal to the turnout during the last round of municipal elections in 2012, according to the CEC.
Absent a full slate of candidates in the municipal elections, the annual student elections at Birzeit University, held the previous week (5/10), served as a bellwether for the Palestinian public’s mood. The Hamas-aligned al-Wafaa Islamic Bloc won 25 of the student council’s 51 seats with 3,778 votes. The Fatah-aligned Martyr Yasir Arafat Bloc came in 2d, winning 22 seats with 3,340 votes.
STRUGGLE FOR CONTROL OF GAZA
Hamas-Fatah tensions exploded after Hamas pulled out of the municipal elections, and the population of Gaza suffered the consequences. First, Hamas announced (3/16) the formation of a new comm. to administer Gaza, comprising mbrs. of the Hamas-affiliated Palestinian Legislative Council bloc and other senior party officials. Although one of the latter, Salah Bardawil, insisted (3/16) that “Hamas has not formed a substitute govt. to replace the consensus govt.,” Abbas reacted as if that was exactly what they had done. On 4/4, the employees of the former PA govt. in Gaza, who had continued to receive their monthly salaries despite not working since Hamas took control in 2007, discovered that their 3/2017 paychecks had been cut by 30%. PA PM Hamdallah explained (4/8) that the cuts were commensurate with the austerity measures the PA had put in place in response to decreasing revenues from foreign aid in 2016. He also called (4/8) on Hamas to cede control of Gaza to the PA, arguing that the movement was exacerbating the Palestinians’ financial troubles by “taking all of the revenue [in Gaza] and spending it only on itself.” Hamas, for its part, described (4/10) the cuts as a “massacre.” UN special coordinator Nickolay Mladenov said (4/8) the cuts placed an additional burden on the people of Gaza, who were already struggling to survive in a difficult situation (see “Gaza Electricity Crisis” above), and urged Hamas to allow the PA to resume governance of the region.
On 4/11, Fatah Central Comm. mbr. Jamal Muhaisin announced a new reconciliation effort. Fatah would send a delegation to Gaza after Israel’s closure of the West Bank ended on 4/17 (see “Movement and Access” above) to discuss “possible future steps . . . upon the delegation’s return.” Hamas leaders met with representatives of various other factions in Gaza City on 4/12 to prepare for the delegation’s arrival, but Abbas cast a pall over their preparations when he told Palestinian diplomats gathered in Bahrain on 4/13, “These days, we are in a dangerous and tough situation that requires decisive steps. . . . Therefore, we are going to take unprecedented steps in the coming days to end the division.” Abbas did not elaborate on what sort of steps he was planning, but many speculated that he intended to stop paying the salaries of former PA employees in Gaza altogether.
As the Fatah delegation’s visit approached, senior Hamas officials began expressing hesitation. Hammad al-Ruqab said (4/17) that bilateral talks would “only cement the siege” on Gaza, and suggested that“a meeting . . . be held for all Palestinians so that all [of the various parties] can be involved.” Khalil al-Hayya reiterated (4/17) Hamas’s commitment to existing plans for the formation of a new Palestinian National Council and for the PA to take over the Gaza Strip (see JPS 36 ), but said Abbas would have to reverse the 3/2017 salary cuts and cancel the taxes imposed on Gaza’s power plant if he wanted Hamas participation in the meeting. In the event, the 2 sides met on 4/18 in Gaza City, with Fatah’s reps. reportedly proposing a road map with several key conditions: the PA would take control of Gaza, Hamas would dissolve its new administrative comm., and a new round of municipal elections would take place within 6 mos. The meeting was positive, according to Bardawil (4/19), and the 2 sides reportedly agreed that the PA would transfer the funds it had withheld when it cut the salaries of former employees on 3/2017.
As the electricity crisis in Gaza deepened, the optimism of the 4/18 meeting faded. On 4/25, sources close to Abbas said he was preparing to issue Hamas an ultimatum: either cede control of Gaza immediately or give up all PA funding. “We realize this sounds cruel,” a PA source said. “But in the end, after 10 years of the split and Hamas rule in the Strip, [Hamas] must decide whether it will control things in every sense, including ongoing expenses, or let the Palestinian government rule.” Hamas, for its part, suspended schools and closed govt. offices in Gaza on 5/2 to encourage people to attend anti-PA and anti-Abbas rallies. In addition, Hamas forces arrested several local Fatah leaders ahead of a counterprotest on 5/3. In a meeting with Arab ambs. in Washington on 5/4, Abbas held his ground and threatened further escalation. “Things will be painful,” he told them. With humanitarian conditions in Gaza deteriorating and international pressure growing for the PA and Hamas to heal the rift, there were no signs of a resolution by the end of the quarter.
HAMAS’S POLITICAL TRANSITION
As conflicts unfolded over the municipal elections, Gazan PA employees’ salaries, and the electricity crisis, Hamas’s leadership was quietly preparing a major shift in its stated policy positions. According to a 3/8 report in Asharq Al-Awsat, Hamas officials were working on a document that would constitute a dramatic departure from the 1988 charter, in which Hamas’s founders called for armed struggle to recover all of historic Palestine, and framed the struggle in religious terms as a battle of Muslims against Jews. Breaking the news about this initiative (3/8), a senior Hamas official stated, “Anyone who has followed the statements of Khalid Mishal and the Hamas leaders will not find anything different [in the new document]. . . . But in light of the major changes that have occurred in the region and within the Palestinian arena, Hamas has formulated this document to represent the movement and its principles.”
On 5/1, Hamas unveiled the “Document of General Principles and Policies,” including provisions accepting the notion of a Palestinian state with borders based on the pre-1967 armistice lines and calling for resistance to Israel as a Zionist project rather than a war against Jews (see “A Newer Hamas? The Revised Charter” in this issue). While Hamas leaders had articulated the various positions and policies laid out in the document over the previous 10 years, its publication marked the 1st time the party as a whole had assented formally to all of them. In terms of timing, Hamas sources attributed the early 5/2017 release of the document to the desire to better position the party ahead of U.S. pres. Trump’s meeting with Abbas on 5/3 and the new admin.’s efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks (see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” above). Israeli PM Netanyahu’s office called (5/1) the document a “smoke screen,” while Fatah said (5/2) “nothing [in the document] signals that Hamas is actually moving toward national unity.”
One week after unveiling the document, Hamas elected (5/6) Haniyeh, former PM in Gaza, to replace Mishal as head of the party’s political bureau. “We are certain that the new leadership will lead the organization wisely for the benefit of the Palestinian people,” Mishal said (5/6). Haniyeh was widely considered the front-runner for the position after Mishal signaled in early 2017 that he intended to step down. Mishal was expected to split his time between Gaza and Qatar, where he is based.