Hamas Rising? Tensions High Over Upcoming West Bank and Gaza Elections

By Genevieve Belmaker | September 2, 2016 | 1:55 AM EDT

Palestinian Authority chairman and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal speak to reporters after talks in Cairo in February 2012 (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – The potential outcome of simultaneous elections scheduled for Gaza and the West Bank on October 8 – after a decade-long wait – has many Israelis worried, due to speculation that the Islamist terrorist group Hamas could take control in the West Bank.

The last local elections in the West Bank, which is ruled by Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction of the PLO, were held in 2012, after being cancelled in 2010 and postponed in 2011.

Gaza, ruled by Hamas, has held no elections since 2006. Hamas won those elections, then violently ousted Fatah from Gaza the following year. The two groups reached a reconciliation agreement and formed a “government of national consensus” in 2014.

But experts have long been saying Hamas has a real chance of taking control in the West Bank when elections are eventually held – not least of all because of voter dissatisfaction after years of corruption and ineptitude on the part of the authorities in the West Bank.

A year ago, the conservative Gatestone Institute said delayed elections pointed to a real fear among Fatah leaders of a Hamas takeover.

“Fatah is afraid that Hamas’s chances of winning the elections, especially in the West Bank, are very high,” wrote Gatestone analyst Khaled Abu Toameh. 

“[I]t has become obvious that the ‘national consensus’ government has failed to achieve its main objectives: the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip; ending the conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and preparing for new presidential and parliamentary elections,” he added.

Last week, an investigative report by Israel’s Channel 2 television cited sources as saying Fatah officials fear their organization’s “destruction” – prompted widespread local media coverage of the issue, an concerns that Hamas will take control of the West Bank as it did the West Bank a decade ago.

The prospect of the repressive and violent Hamas ruling the West Bank – home to nearly half a million Israelis and in an area with a semi-porous border with Israel-proper – is a chilling topic in Israeli society.

But officials close to Abbas told the Times of Israel that the speculation by the Israeli government and public smacks of a self-fulfilling and self-serving prophecy.

They said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman “are convinced we are going to lose and thus want these elections. They desire a victory for Hamas, as this would prove their allegations that there is no one to talk to” on the Palestinian side.

There have also been rumors that voting will be postponed yet again. Fareed Taamalah, spokesman for the Central Elections Commission of Palestine (CEC), insisted the reports were totally unfounded.

“Yesterday there was a meeting for the committee of Fatah, and there is no change” regarding the election, he said by phone on Wednesday.

There are more than two million registered voters in the West Bank and Gaza. Voter turnout is expected to be as high as 60-70 percent, according to Taamalah.

Taamalah said the CEC does not have serious concerns about voter safety at polling stations, which will be in schools, although armed police will be in place on voting day. He said voting officials’ main worry is over possible external interference that would make it difficult for people to vote.

“Our concern is about the Israeli authorities and police,” said Taamalah. “They can impose a curfew, or impose checkpoints, or can prevent logistical support. They can do anything. If they decide to make it difficult, they can.’”

The voting areas in the patchwork-like West Bank are made up of 353 localities, most of which will hold elections.

The CEC also oversees voting in Gaza.

Restrictions of movement between Gaza and the West Bank make it difficult for CEC officials to meet with political parties, Taamalah said. During a rare Aug. 17 meeting in Gaza, they did manage to set some ground rules on the day after candidates were officially nominated.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), which recently raised concerns over freedom of expression in the region, is watching closely. The group recently pointed to the politically-motivated arrest by Palestinian authorities of journalists and  critics. 

Sari Bashi, the Israel/Palestine director for HRW, said by phone that although her organization doesn’t take a stance on political issues, they do see it as a positive development that elections are being held at all.

She said that they “do have concerns on restrictions of public expression.”

“We would like to see both sides allowing robust political discussion – allowing activists to campaign and express opinions,” said Bashi. She said plans for armed security at polling stations is the “responsibility of authorities” and a necessity.

“It’s not unusual to have violence related to elections,” Bashi said. “It’s a known phenomenon across the world, there are people who try to influence the elections through violence.”

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