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Palestine elections: A leap into the unknown for Fatah and Hamas

Both parties are going into the elections without an agreed vision for Palestine and a detailed plan for obtaining it
A Palestinian member of Central Elections Commission displays an ID to a colleague as they check the work of the first Voter Information and Registration Centre in Gaza City on 10 February, 2021 (AFP)

You can tell when elections are being planned in the occupied West Bank. 

This is the fifth time elections across Palestine have been attempted in the past 15 years since they were held in 2006, when Hamas, to everyone’s surprise, not least their own, swept the board. This time President Mahmoud Abbas appears to be serious about holding them.

How can one tell? Because between them his Preventive Security and Israeli forces are arresting anyone who opposes their candidates. The Palestinian Prisoners Club says that 456 civilians were arrested in January in the West Bank and on one night alone in February, 31 Palestinians were rounded up. 

A serious escalation

The arrests are politically colour blind. Every faction has been targeted - even those that have not yet been established. For over a year, Israeli forces have been targeting hundreds of young men and women from a left-wing social and political network.

Politically motivated arrests are nothing new in the West Bank. What may surprise some is that the Hamas leadership in Gaza is still pushing ahead with the election plan regardless

They face charges of  "terrorist activity," "visiting an enemy state" or even vaguer "communicating with foreign agents". Their interrogators put them in little doubt about why they are being detained . They want fear to spread in the community.  Detention and torture are tools to stop the network before it can grow. Hamas members in the West Bank are threatened they will be next if they dare to stand. 

Khaled al-Hajj, a Hamas leader in Jenin who supported President Abbas's elections decrees, was arrested last week. Another Hamas member, who had just had surgery for cancer, was severely beaten.

Wasfi Kabha, a former Hamas minister, told MEE: "We are facing a dangerous and serious escalation, not only by the occupation, but also by the security services that belong to the PA. That arrest campaign aims to scare, intimidate and terrorise members of the movement and also those who have sympathy for Hamas. The arrests are meant to influence the election. There are many others that the Israeli forces threaten to arrest if they nominate themselves or take part in the elections."

Kabha added: "The Palestinian security services severely beat Abdel Nasser Rabbi despite the fact he had suffered from cancer and had surgery a short time ago. Unfortunately, Palestinian security services finish the job of whoever Israel can not manage to arrest."

Politically motivated arrests are nothing new in the West Bank. What may surprise some is that the Hamas leadership in Gaza is still pushing ahead with the election plan regardless.

A divided Hamas

The interesting question is why? During three rounds of negotiations with Fatah in Beirut and Ankara, the Hamas leadership insisted on holding all three elections for the Legislative Council , the presidency, and the National Council of the PLO simultaneously. This is because they did not trust Abbas to keep his word once he himself had been reelected as president.

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Hamas also insisted that the PA end its security cooperation with Israel and the arrest campaign in the West Bank. For a while Abbas complied, only to abandon that strategy when it became clear to him last November that Donald Trump was out of office. In subsequent talks in Cairo, Hamas failed to get either demand. 

The other two factions, the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), both tabled reservations. Islamic Jihad announced it was not running for the elections, but the delegation from Hamas stayed in.

Proponents of the deal with Fatah claim that Hamas were given guarantees that some 38,000 civil servants in Gaza would not only be paid by the PA, but receive permanent tenure. They claim a new election court would be formed to avoid the heavily weighted constitutional court that Abbas created. They also claim Hamas would secure the collaboration of the international community, including renewing relations with the European Union. They also claim that no one could criminalise the resistance.

Opponents of the deal within Hamas say all of these promises are wishful thinking. They point out that the issue of civil servants, which is at least a decade old, has been put off until after the elections. A new election court has not been announced by Abbas and, even if it were to be formed, it could not supplant the existing constitutional court, which remains the highest legal authority in the West Bank. 

Lastly, they say that it is not in Fatah's power to guarantee international recognition of Hamas, which is still designated as a terrorist organisation by both the US and the EU

This combination of pictures created on 11 January, 2019 shows (L) Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (AFP)
This combination of pictures created on 11 January, 2019 shows (L) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (AFP)

Hamas's senior leadership is clearly divided. Hamas in Gaza is hemmed in, unable to break out of the prison camp that has become Gaza following the 2006 elections, the attempted coup by Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan, and the split with Fatah. They are fed up with being held responsible for the continuing siege and are desperate to find a way out. Money is also running out. Iran is no longer funding them as before, and there are signs that other foreign backers are pushing them into Fatah's arms.  

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But the anger at the crackdown on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the PFLP members in the West Bank is mounting. While there is sympathy over the conditions they face in Gaza, the Hamas leadership, which is now based entirely in the enclave, will face mounting pressure to pull out of elections in which Hamas can only lose. 

No one expects a rerun of the 2006 result.

One measure of the backlash which the leadership in Gaza will face is spelled out in a leaked letter from one of the most prominent Hamas leaders in Israeli prisons. Ibrahim Hamid was a leader of the military wing in the West Bank during the Second Intifada and received one of the harshest terms: 54 concurrent life imprisonment sentences. Hamid called the decision by Hamas' political bureau to run in the elections "hasty".

He said the decision had been made independently of the Shura Council, a consultative body that elects Hamas's politburo, and without the full knowledge of the prisoners' movement. Ibrahim added that running for the elections would only serve Abbas's purpose of reviving his legitimacy while curtailing that of Hamas.

In Hamid's analysis, Hamas is facing a lose/lose scenario: should it win the elections, what is to prevent a repeat of the 2006 scenario, which launched the siege of Gaza and the split with Fatah? Should it lose the elections, would Hamas hand over both the administration and its rockets to Fatah in Gaza?

Even if Abbas kept his word and created a genuinely representative national Palestinian government, and Hamas was allowed to return to parliament and enter the PLO, what would stop Israel from arresting MPs as they do now? 

One hand would give what another would take away, but the outcome would be the same.

Fatah’s problems

Fatah is faring no better. Abbas's drive to refresh his mandate and seek the legitimacy he has lost as one of the architects of Oslo is being threatened by two other Fatah leaders. Abbas has long been aware of the plan which I first revealed in 2016 to replace him with his arch-rival Dahlan.

The plan for a post-Abbas era was hatched by the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt. Since 2016, Egypt and Jordan have not stopped pressuring Abbas to reconcile with Dahlan. The latest message was passed to Abbas when Egypt and Jordan's heads of intelligence visited Ramallah recently.

The new card in this operation is the man who ran against Abbas and then withdrew his candidacy in the 2005 presidential election, the Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the First and Second Intifadas who is in prison on five concurrent life sentences. 

Barghouti remains a consistently popular figure of the resistance. At one point he polled higher than both Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader, for the post of president. In April 2017 Barghouti organised a hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

This time round, Barghouti announced his intention to run for the presidency and the PNC through one of his supporters, Raafat Ilayyan. Ilayyan quoted Barghouti as saying that a united Fatah list "should be open to all including those accused of taking sides and those sacked from the movement".

A man holds a photo of prominent Palestinian prisoner Marwan Barghouti calling for his release during a rally supporting those detained in Israeli jails after hundreds of them launched a hunger strike, in the West Bank town of Hebron on April 17, 2017
A man holds a photo of prominent Palestinian prisoner Marwan Barghouti calling for his release during a rally on 17 April 2017 (AFP)

This was a clear reference to Dahlan, who lives in exile and has been sentenced in absentia to three years in prison on corruption charges and expelled from the party. Dahlan's lawyer at the time called the conviction a "cleansing exercise" for Abbas.

Does Fatah want to liberate Palestine from the occupation, or does it want to govern as a surrogate for Israel, whatever conditions it is put under?

After nearly two decades behind bars, Barghouti wants to get out of jail. Is Dahlan, who is Israel's preferred Palestinian leader, the Fatah leader's get out of jail card? Barghouti's announcement ruffled feathers in Fatah. Jibril Rajoub, secretary general of Fatah's central committee, who led negotiations with Hamas, accused foreign countries of meddling in the Palestinian elections. 

Rajoub told Palestinian TV: "Some messages have been received from some countries trying to interfere in the path of dialogue, including Arab states which rushed [to normalise relations with Israel]. However, Fatah's position is clear and does not take directions from any foreign capital." 

In their campaign to position Dahlan as the next Palestinian leader, Egypt, Jordan and UAE are keen to exploit the distrust between Fatah and Hamas. The latest sign of this is the arrival of the first of what will be a large group of Dahlan men in Gaza after many years in exile. This could only have been achieved with the consent of Hamas leaders in Gaza. 

The true winner of the election may, therefore, be a man who does not even stand on the ballot. One way or another, Dahlan is determined to return to Palestine at the expense of both Abbas and Hamas. 

The jockeying for position within Fatah is about power. But aside from this, Fatah has a real problem with its identity and its purpose. Does Fatah want to liberate Palestine from the occupation, or does it want to govern as a surrogate for Israel, whatever conditions it is put under?

Rajoub and Dahlan are sworn enemies only because they are rivals. Neither has a vision for a free Palestine. Abbas momentarily found his voice as a Palestinian leader in pushing back against the normalisation of ties with Israel, which he called a betrayal. But as soon it became clear Trump was on his way out, Abbas tossed his principles out of the window and returned to business as usual both with Washington and Israel.

Fatah still has a crisis of legitimacy despite the fact that it considers itself the natural governing power. Hamas wants to rid itself of the heavy burden of responsibility for two million impoverished Palestinians in Gaza, but under these conditions, elections are clearly a leap into the unknown. It could well end up worse off. Both parties are going into the elections without an agreed vision for Palestine and a detailed plan for obtaining it.

The real leaders

Who then are the real leaders of this struggle? For this, we should not look to elections but to what is happening on the streets because it is only here that liberation movements are reborn. That was the case when the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat started Fatah and when Hamas became a dominant force in the First Intifada. No one, either in Ramallah or Gaza, is leading or directing events that are now taking place in Palestine.

Israel is playing a delaying game, and unhappily, both Fatah and Hamas leaders are playing into its hands

It has been a long time since there were major demonstrations by Palestinian citizens of Israel. Earlier this month, protests erupted in several towns and villages. The spark this time is the crime rate and the lack of policing. But the Palestinian flags and the slogans tell a different story, one that has not been seen or heard since the First Intifada. 

There are more and more youth initiatives taking root in the West Bank, including the one Israeli forces are so keen to dismantle. There is clearly a new generation of protest underway that is independent of Fatah, Hamas or the now divided Joint List in the Israeli Knesset.

In the diaspora, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is becoming an international movement. This, too, is independent of any Palestinian leadership. Rudderless, there is every chance that a new Palestinian movement in and outside Palestine will seize control. 

Israel is playing a delaying game, and, unhappily, leaders of both Fatah and Hamas  - one crippled by its decision to recognise Israel, the other imprisoned by it - are playing into its hands. If this continues, the impetus to break the deadlock will come from the streets, as it always has done in the past.

No vision

What a contrast Palestinian leaders make to other liberation movements. When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison on 11 February 1990, he made a speech that resonates to this day. He said the armed struggle would continue until apartheid collapsed. He called on the international community to continue the boycott of the apartheid regime.

Mandela and the ANC showed determination and vision to the end. Both are sadly lacking in Palestine

"The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement would be created soon so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle... To lift sanctions now would be to run the risk of aborting the process towards the complete eradication of apartheid. Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way," Mandela said.

Compare this to what Fatah has done. It signed the Oslo agreement that criminalised the armed struggle and opened the way for Israel to normalise its relations with China, the Soviet Union in its last days, India and many African countries. Oslo gave nothing to the Palestinians. It ended up giving a lot to Israel, culminating in the opening of embassies in Abu Dhabi and Manama. 

The Palestinian Authority created by Oslo became a surrogate of Israeli forces, even when Israel was starving Ramallah of tax revenue collected on its behalf. In Abbas's own words, the PA provided Israel with "the cheapest occupation in history".

What did Abbas get in return? Another 600,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

Mandela and the African National Congress showed determination and vision to the end. Both are sadly lacking in Palestine. The mice of this struggle are in Ramallah. The lions are on the street - where they have always been.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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

David Hearst
David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was The Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.