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Hamas to run for presidential and municipal elections, again

With the Islamic movement experiencing every-growing popularity, both in Gaza and the West Bank, Abbas is prepared for Hamas victory in upcoming elections
Hamas top leader in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya (AFP)

BEIT HANOUN, GAZA - Hamas has begun preparations for presidential and legislative elections, a senior Hamas political leader Khalil al-Hayya, has announced.

It is the first time that the group has decided to contest a Presidential election and could see a Hamas leader win control of the Palestinian Authority.

In his comments, made over the weekend, Hayya explained that Hamas was dedicated to working with the current consensus government in Gaza, but also wanted to ensure that it had a strategy in place once elections were held. He stressed that his movement was determined to work toward ending divisions and building national organisations on the basis of transparency and power sharing.

"It is not allowed for anyone to work on their own," he said.

The announcement was made at an event held in the northern town of Beit Hanoun to commemorate the more than 2,100 Palestinians killed during this summer’s 51-day war on Gaza, and was attended by thousands, including former Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Hanyieh and several other senior Hamas leaders.

The move appears to be an attempt by the Hamas leadership to outline new thinking within the Hamas movement, with Hayya repeatedly calling for new elections and greater Palestinian political and military reunification, in the face of Israel's ongoing occupation.

"Everyone realises the policy of the blockade has failed, and the siege against the resistance is gone, and will not return," Hayya said.

"The world and its tyrannical forces, which imposed the blockade on us, found it useless due to the presence of the resistance."

Israel has attempted to assassinate Hayya several times over the years. The last time was during this summers’ offensive when it bombed his home, killing his son, daughter-in-law and grandson. Prior to that, several of his relatives were killed when Israeli F16s hit places where he was believed to be hiding. Yet, Hayya remained undeterred and promised to keep up resistance.

"We are now more confident and certain … that there is no place for occupiers on our land,” he said.

Hamas will continue and employ new techniques, despite the blockade which did not stop them from building more homemade rockets and later expanding their range, he explained.

Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, who stems from the rival Fatah camp, has even tentatively accepted the move on Wednesday, telling an Egyptian television station that he would be willing to hand power over to Hamas if they won the next election. Hamas did not stand against Abbas in the 2005 Presidential vote, although the group did field candidates for the 2006 parliamentary elections.

"We are ready for presidential elections as of tomorrow, and if Hamas wins, they will get power," Abbas said. 

The following statement could, in fact, be interpreted as a reference the ongoing problem facing  tens of thousands of civil servant workers in Gaza, but if such a transition is indeed allowed, it would be a shift away from the drama which followed the 2006 elections.

Then Hamas won a majority of seats in Gaza, while Fatah came out on top in the West Bank. The ensuing tensions have divided Palestinian politics since, although the announcement of a consensus technocrat government on 2 June has now raised hopes that a lasting rapprochement could be in the works.

Under the deal, agreed by both Hamas and Fatah, the 17-member non-affiliated cabinet is supposed to work toward unity and peace until elections - slated for 2015 - can be held. 

Election time?

For now, there is not much talk within Palestinian factions as to when the Palestinian elections will actually be held. However, if an election was held now, it seems that Hamas may have the upper hand. 

In a poll conducted last month by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, Hamas was shown to be leading the polls in both presidential and parliamentary elections -  the first time this has happened since Palestinians voted Hamas into office in 2006. 

According to Adnan Abu Amer, a Gaza-based political analyst, Hamas is planning to repeat its 2006 parliamentary election strategy and expand to presidential elections.

“Hamas fears the upcoming elections would be the soft gate which will get it out of the political arena,” he told Middle East Eye.   

But Hamas is determined to not let this happen and has learned from the experience of governing. They are ready to correct past mistakes and evolve, he explained.

Moreover, the movement knows that now is the perfect time to gain the upper hand, he added.

According to the poll, which interviewed 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank, there has been an unprecedented shift in popularity towards Hamas. This is in large, to the credit of Hamas’ ability to hold its ground during the 51-day Israeli attack on Gaza this summer, dubbed “Operation Protective Edge.”

The poll shows that Hamas leader, Hanyieh would win with 60 percent of votes in a two-way race against PA president Mahmoud Abbas who would secure just 32 percent of the vote.

More than 50 of respondents said that armed-resistance would be more likely to help Palestinians achieve their ambition of having their own state – an indication that the majority of Palestinians would like to adopt Hamas's strategy of armed struggle to end occupation. 

Some internal documents within Hamas showed earlier in the year that Hamas popularity faced steady decline.

This shift was clear even before the 2014 war, with a poll conducted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, showing that 70 percent of Gazans wanted Hamas to maintain a ceasefire with Israel and 57 percent of Gazans preferred a Fatah to a Hamas leadership.

But Hamas’s support seems to have bounced back and is also crucially growing in the West Bank, where resentment is rising regarding the actions of the Palestinian Authority, that has failed to make headway in peace talks, prevent massive settlement construction and that imposed heavy crack-downs on pro-Gaza protests this summer.

Even if Hamas’ popularity in Gaza ends up declining over the long term, according to Abu Amer, Hamas is still well positioned to win due to several factors.

“In applying mathematical equation, the West Bank population is bigger than Gaza and that may balance out any potential loss in Gaza where the population is smaller,” Abu Amer said.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2010 there were 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 1.7 in Gaza. Moreover a greater percentage of the population is able to vote in the West Bank – almost double those eligible in Gaza – which further pushes the odds in Hamas’s favour, Abu Amer added.

Observers and commentators tend to agree that the PA could revive its fortunes if it manages to secure the opening of Gaza’s crossings and speed up the process of reconstruction and economic recovery in Gaza. On the other hand, if Hamas is indeed holding an Israeli soldier hostage, and manages to secure a good prisoner-swap deal - similar to the release of Gilad Shalit in 2011 - then the wave of popularity for Hamas could well undermine any PA hopes.