Getting busy in Gaza
Preparations for national elections are taking place against a continued backdrop of lawlessness as armed resistance groups flex their muscles, reports Erica Silverman in Gaza
Speaking before a crowd of thousands gathered for a well orchestrated campaign rally in the heart of Gaza City after Friday prayer, Said Siyam, one of five Hamas candidates running for district seats in Gaza, declared, "We condemn the cowardly actions that led to the death of two Egyptian police officers ... We send our condolences to our Egyptian brothers and we assert to them our condemnation of this crime."
Siyam questioned, "What kind of Authority is unable to protect a crossing or an election centre?" referring to the havoc Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, part of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party, and other local warlords, have been wreaking on the Gaza Strip. Al-Aqsa militants, furious after being overlooked by Fatah in their candidate selection process, have been lashing out in violence, creating a degree of lawlessness and chaos that may prevent upcoming Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections, scheduled for 25 January, from taking place.
The other major obstacle to the elections has been Israel's efforts to prohibit Palestinians in East Jerusalem from participating, fearing it will colour Jerusalem as a future Palestinian capital, and in protest to Hamas' bid for seats in the Council. Israel, now focused on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's grim health condition, has yet to state its final position.
Al-Aqsa leader Alaa-Al Hamas was detained by Palestinian Authority (PA) officials on Tuesday for questioning related to last week's kidnapping of three Britons in Gaza, conducted by Al-Aqsa. On Wednesday afternoon resentful Al-Aqsa militants proceeded to bulldoze sections of the wall along the Rafah border in protest, leading over 300 Gazans and militants to rush across the border into Egypt where they faced Egyptian troops. Two Egyptian officers were shot dead and 30 wounded in the clashes, although Egyptian troops largely refrained from firing into the crowds. Most of the Palestinians were forced to return back, some toting cheap goods. Witnesses reported that dozens of Egyptians, mostly women, made their way into Gaza seeking relatives.
Late Wednesday night Al-Aqsa militants were still exchanging fire with PA security forces near the Rafah border, as hopeful Gazans, some hauling suitcases, were turned away after the border was sealed. Frightened residents gathered outside their homes still riddled with bullet holes from fire of the Israeli army, which occupied the area before withdrawing from Gaza in September, now terrorised by Al-Aqsa militants instead. When asked if they would vote for Fatah in the coming elections, the residents shouted, "Hamas!". Meanwhile three children suffering gunshot wounds were rushed to a nearby hospital. Al-Aqsa's Al-Hamas was released Thursday.
Earlier on Wednesday, Al-Aqsa militants stormed the Central Elections Commission offices, and three other government buildings in Rafah, and then proceeded to block the entrance to Rafah, Gaza's only passenger terminal. Also on Wednesday, Al-Aqsa militants attempted to kidnap the parents of peace activist Rachel Corrie -- slain by Israel in 2003 while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home -- however, the assault ceased after the armed men involved learned the couple's identity.
On Friday masked militants from Al-Aqsa, Abu Al-Rish Brigades, and the Fatah Hawks -- all under the Fatah umbrella -- issued a statement from Rafah calling on the PA to end lawlessness in the Palestinian territories and condemning the recent kidnapping of foreigners. The statement was also signed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad members.
As the Hamas campaign rally marched by PA National Security headquarters on Friday afternoon, supporters chanted, "Any one who hurts Hamas, we will not cut his hand, we will cut off his head." Early Thursday morning an unarmed member of Ezzeddin Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, Rami Al-Dalou, was shot to death by Ghassan Jadallah, leader of the Fatah youth organisation and on the payroll of the PA Preventative Security Services. Hamas and Fatah activists were hanging election posters in Gaza City when the dispute erupted, stated Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zouhri, demanding the assailant be arrested. PA security officials confirmed the death and said they were investigating.
Speaking from his office in Gaza City on Wednesday, former PA Civil Affairs Minister Mohamed Dahlan denounced the violence committed by Al-Aqsa, asserting, "Al-Aqsa does not represent the Fatah movement." He acknowledged that the Ministry of Interior has not intervened, though must, in cases of violent familial conflicts.
The campaign for the upcoming PLC elections is in full swing in Gaza City, as campaign workers plaster the streets with posters and banners, and lively campaign rallies are underway. Candidates are on the move to convince Gazans they are the one to restore law and order, end corruption, and deliver desperately needed change. Voters will choose between the polarised Fatah and Hamas, and two major independent lists offering an intellectual alternative. Mustafa Barghouti, former presidential candidate heading the Independent Palestine list, and Hanan Ashrawi of the Third Way Party, were both arrested this week by Israeli police for campaigning in East Jerusalem.
Hamas, the highly motivated, formidable challenger, has cut Fatah's lead to only eight points, according to the latest opinion poll released by An-Najah National University, conducted 5-6 January. According to the poll, Fatah received 39.3 per cent of voter support, Hamas 31.3 per cent, and Independent Palestine 10.4 per cent. In total, 82.6 per cent of respondents intend to vote.
Hamas has begun a targeted door-to-door campaign, question and answer sessions in diwans (places of family gathering) across the Strip, along with their famous festivals, drawing thousands under the banner of "change and reform," their campaign slogan. Entering the plush office that serves as the Gaza City campaign headquarters one is greeted by Naje Al-Serhey, a professional, academic type, and campaign manager for the entire Strip. A gunfire ring-tone emanates from the mobile phone nesting in the pocket of his tweed jacket as he explains Hamas' mass media campaign, including newspaper, television and radio advertisements, SMS messages, e- mails, and internet Web sites.
How did Hamas acquire the skills to run a professional campaign considering the movement has little contact with the outside world, and it is their first major campaign? Al-Serhey attributes their success to the large number of professionals and academics within the party and their experience in the municipal elections. Hamas has the proven ability to organise its members; there are 10,000 volunteers in the Gaza governorate alone, Al-Serhey stated.
Fatah, the incumbent still enjoying the lead, started their campaign a few days after the official campaign period commenced. Fatah's message is "We need a second chance," stated Gaza campaign manager Ryad Al-Hassan, as furniture was still being moved into the Gaza City campaign headquarters. A Fatah campaign banner features a traffic light on the right, symbolising commitment to law and order and as an effort to shake their reputation for corruption, and a bright yellow sunflower clad with a koffiyeh (Palestinian headscarf) on the left, symbolising a bright new future and Palestinian roots within this future, according to a Fatah campaign worker.
There are an estimated 50 to 60,000 volunteers in the West Bank and Gaza working on the campaign. Workers received training courses from the Washington DC-based National Democratic Institute in lobbying and campaign management, but unlike Hamas, this is not their first campaign.
Perhaps East Jerusalemite participation will hinge upon Sharon's condition, but the continued internal strife within Fatah must be resolved before the elections can take place. Minister Dahlan asserted, "The elections will bring an end to chaos. If elections are not held on time, it will be a black day for the Palestinian people," and with this at least the Hamas leadership is in accord.