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Palestine politics: Could a unified leadership and elections herald a new era?

Following a meeting in Turkey, Fatah and Hamas announced a new roadmap for elections in Palestine
Palestinians wave national flags as they march in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, calling for the cessation of divisions between Fatah and Hamas and the unification of the West Bank and Gaza Strip on 12 January 2019 (AFP)
By Shatha Hammad in Ramallah, occupied West Bank

During their meeting last week in Turkey, the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas movements finally agreed to present a joint vision on legislative and presidential elections to be held in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem within six months.

The announcement by the erstwhile rivals suggested they were starting a new push towards Palestinian reconciliation and ending the bitter political division that has existed since the 2006 parliamentary elections - leaving Fatah in charge of the Palestian Authority (PA) in the occupied West Bank, and Hamas ruling in the besieged Gaza Strip.

A crucial aspect of this is the formation of a new unified Palestinian leadership.

Although the two movements have previously made positive press statements about moving towards reconciliation, these efforts have quickly faltered.

However, the Palestinian Authority's Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh stressed that, this time, "a positive and fruitful dialogue is taking place between Fatah and Hamas in Turkey", adding that this meeting constituted an important step towards reconciliation and partnership.

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Hamas, for its part, said the meetings had led to a joint vision between the two movements to advance a comprehensive national dialogue with the participation of all Palestinian factions, and make a final formal announcement of consensus by 1 October.

Will elections materialise this time?

The leader of the Hamas movement in the West Bank, Hassan Yousef, told Middle East Eye that reconciliation talks were on a serious path this time, with an aim to coming to an agreement and holding imminent elections.

"Everyone is determined and greatly motivated to make successful efforts towards reconciliation because the Palestinian issue today is exposed to great and serious challenges," he said. "The two movements sensed this danger and are determined to achieve unity with action, not just words.

"The two movements seek to develop a unified strategy for the struggle against the challenges facing Palestine today."

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Hisham Kahil, the Central Elections Commission (CEC) executive director, confirmed that his organisation was ready to hold the electoral process as soon as a presidential decree was issued by PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

"The Central Elections Commission is always ready to deal with any decisions on general and local elections, and always updates voter registration," he said.

"We are following up developments of the reconciliation file, and we have raised our readiness to deal with anything new, and we are still waiting for the president's decree to select a date for holding the legislative elections."

Kahil added that the committee informed the presidential office that it needed 110 days after the issuance of the presidential decree to start its work.

What is unified leadership?

The acceleration of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas came days after the announcement of the formation of the Unified National Leadership of the Popular Resistance, which includes general secretaries of all Palestinian political factions and formed a new body that will expand upon the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) - notably to include Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The Unified Leadership that was formed on 3 September during two joint meetings in Ramallah and Beirut aims at unifying the efforts of all Palestinian factions by working to lead a popular resistance in all of the Palestinian territories, as well as achieving reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas movements.

Much of the new mobilisation comes as Palestinian leadership has sought to unite against Arab normalisation with Israel, following deals between Tel Aviv, the UAE and Bahrain since August.

Jehad Harb, a researcher on Palestinian politics and government with a special focus on parliamentary affairs, said Fatah and Hamas were in urgent need of elections in order to renew their legitimacy.

"It is expected that the president will issue the election decree quickly and the elections are expected to be held within six months," he said.

He said that despite the formation of the Unified Leadership, the new organisation's impact was still limited in terms of unifying internal Palestinian ranks.

However, Harb added that among its founding missions was to try and build popular resistance among wider Palestinian society.

'Popular struggle'

On 13 September the Unified Leadership issued its first founding statement, in which it announced "the launch of a comprehensive popular struggle which will not end until the creation of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital".

In its statement, the organisation called for mass activism to begin on 15 September. On that day, events and demonstrations took place in several cities in the West Bank, expressing opposition to normalisation with Israel.

However, the founding statement did not include a clear and long-term political programme for the Unified Leadership, nor did it clarify the characteristics of this leadership, its aspirations, and the forms of popular resistance it sought, a factor which may have resulted in the limited mobilisation on 15 September.

Fatah spokesman Hussein Hamayel told MEE that the Unified Leadership sought to gain its legitimacy from the Palestinian people in order to create a comprehensive and truly popular resistance.

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"There will be work on several levels, and an agreement will be reached on the national programme, the political programme, and the media narrative. All that will be done under the umbrella of the PLO," he added.

The participation of Hamas in the Unified Leadership constitutes a possibility for its accession to the PLO. In this regard, Yousef revealed that during the last meeting of the general secretaries of Palestinian factions, three committees were formed, one of which is to develop the PLO, correct its course, address existing issues in its institutions and expand it to include all Palestinians, including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

"We need a united front today, and the Hamas movement has become part of this leadership due to its belief that the unification of struggle and partnership is the only way out to confront the deal of the century, and the annexation and normalisation plans," Yousef, the Hamas representative in the West Bank, told MEE.

On the other hand, the general secretary of the left-wing Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (PPSF) and PLO executive committee member, Ahmed al-Majdalani, told MEE that the Unified Leadership did not consist of the general secretaries of the different factions, but rather worked as a point of reference for them.

"This leadership was formed in consultation among factions with the aim of developing policies and a general framework for national activities and events, in addition to its responsibility to manage the popular resistance," he said.

He added that the popular resistance was "not an army or organisation but an open field for the release of popular energies everywhere, and it is comprehensive, broad and gradual in resisting the occupation."

Although Palestinians have suffered from the financial blockade imposed on the Palestinian Authority and the depletion of its capabilities, Majdalani said: "providing the resources for popular steadfastness and lifting the financial blockade imposed on us is the mission of the Palestinian government, not the mission of the Unified Leadership."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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