Palestinian polls unlikely this year
Security coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel has scuppered a national unity government and in turn Palestinian general elections, writes Khaled Amayreh in Ramallah
Hard political realities in the occupied territories seem to have dashed all hopes for organising Palestinian general elections next month, the erstwhile designated date for holding the polls according to an agreement reached in Doha between Fatah and Hamas a few months ago.
Palestinian leaders representing various political factions have described the previously designated date as "impossible" and "clearly unrealistic".
"It is obvious that we can not hold elections in May or even June. The preparations necessary for organising the elections are yet to be made," said Mustafa Barghouti, who heads the Freedom Committee set up to facilitate the reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas.
According to the Palestinian Elections Commission (PEC), it has become virtually impossible to hold the elections in May.
"We will have to work fast to hold the elections this year," Barghouti said, speaking to a Western news agency.
Critics think that the outspoken Palestinian politician is too optimistic.
This week, a leading Hamas official, Mahmoud Zahar, reportedly referred to the Doha agreement as "dead".
Zahar said organising elections would have to be preceded by a number of prerequisite measures, including forming an agreed-on government, releasing political prisoners, securing civil liberties, and guaranteeing a positive electioneering atmosphere.
"But none of these conditions has been met," Zahar said.
The veteran Hamas leader, who is widely believed to wield considerable influence over the movement's decision-making process, especially in the Gaza Strip, said Hamas will not take part in a sham election.
"Do we have the freedom to campaign in the West Bank? The answer is 'No.' Do we have the freedom to campaign in East Jerusalem? The answer is 'No.' Do we have assurances and guarantees against arbitrary arrest by the Israeli occupation army? The answer is again 'No.'"
Palestinian Authority (PA) officials dismiss Zahar's objections as "merely excuses" meant to create obstacles and to enable Hamas to avoid elections that don't look auspicious for the Islamist movement.
Nimr Hammad, a PA spokesman and close aide to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, rejects Hamas's "pretexts". "They took part in the elections in 2006 under virtually the same conditions. What has changed since then?"
The truth of the matter, however, is that conditions then and now are far from being identical or even similar.
In 2006, Hamas enjoyed nearly full freedom to campaign in the West Bank, with minimal Israeli interference, which allowed the movement to easily defeat Fatah, which was favoured and backed by the West, especially the George W Bush administration. (The US supplemented the Fatah election campaign with millions of dollars).
More to the point, Hamas's various institutions, including Islamic charities, were functioning rather efficiently, which, at least according to Israeli and Western intelligence sources, contributed to the Islamist movement's popularity.
Now, however, most if not all Islamist institutions, including youth clubs, schools, orphanages, clinics and charities have been taken over by Fatah which sought to manipulate these public organs to weaken Hamas and strengthen itself.
In addition, there are still hundreds of Islamist political detainees in PA jails in the West Bank and a lesser number of Fatah detainees in Hamas-ruled Gaza.
It is widely thought that Fatah's followers enjoy far more rights and liberties in Gaza Strip than do Hamas's followers in the West Bank. This is partly due to the so-called "Israeli factor" whereby the PA must demonstrate "resolve" and "zero tolerance" for all forms of anti-Israeli activity.
In fact, the "Israel factor" remains the central and ultimate obstacle impeding the organisation of successful Palestinian elections. Israel considers Hamas its number one enemy and anyone formally affiliated or even remotely associated with the Islamist camp is vulnerable to random arrest and detention for years without charge or trial.
Indeed, Israel still holds more than 25 Palestinian lawmakers in its jails, including Parliament Speaker Aziz Deweik, solely for taking part in the 2006 elections which were okayed by the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon and the Bush administration, both of which thought Fatah would win the polls.
Moreover, Israeli officials say openly they won't allow any political activity by Hamas in the West Bank, especially in East Jerusalem, until Hamas recognises Israel.
The Israeli occupation authorities have imprisoned and deported several Islamist lawmakers for being members of the Palestinian Legislative Council as well as for being affiliated with Hamas's political arm, the Reform and Change List.
In fact, more than one Israeli official has warned that the Israeli occupation would unapologetically arrest any Hamas candidate in the West Bank, a warning that must be taken seriously.
The PA leadership hopes that the international community, especially the United States and EU, probably along with other countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, would pressure Israel to allow for the organisation of free elections in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.
In fact, Fatah is quite ambivalent with regard to the Israeli repression of Hamas in the West Bank. On the one hand the movement can not dismisses Hamas's fears and objections as "unfounded". On the other hand, Fatah knows well that Israeli repression and harassment of Hamas is bound to benefit Fatah.
One Fatah leader in the Hebron region admitted recently that "people (voters) realise that it is pointless to give votes to someone who would be arrested and dumped behind bars until the next elections are due."
According to the hapless Doha Agreement, a government of national unity would have been formed in order to prepare for the elections. However, disagreements over the identity of its prime minister and powers prevented the formation of this government.
For example, Hamas has insisted all along that the agreed-upon government would terminate all security coordination with Israel, a condition that would be impossible to implement from the PA viewpoint.
Zahar alluded to this dimension, saying "We would never take part in a government that indulges in security coordination with the enemy."
Many observers believe that the termination of security coordination with Israel would mean the PA losing its raison d'être, at least from the Israeli viewpoint.
Earlier this week, Abbas said he would soon reshuffle the Salam Fayyad government. However, the measure is unlikely to change political realities in the West Bank where Israel continues to be the dominant power.