Palestinian Authority local elections, in Judea and Samaria as well as Gaza, were supposed to take place on October 8th, a few weeks from now.
At first glance, it seems as though the elections are only for choosing functionaries for the local governmental bodies in charge of technical and limited municipal citizen services. However, the closer the elections loomed, the more other substantial and basic issues began to surface, issues that go way beyond municipal frameworks to influence the general atmosphere in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Tensions reached new highs last week when it was announced that the PA Supreme Court had decided to authorize postponing the elections to an unknown date.
The PA Bar Association filed the request to postpone the elections for two reasons. First of all, they claimed that Israel will not allow voting in Jerusalem – justifiably so, of course. Holding elections in that case makes the PA seem subservient to Israel and could be interpreted as their relinquishing claims to the city. On the other hand, the PA cannot allow elections to be held in Judea, Samaria and Gaza in line with Israel's delusions – in the PA's opinion – about Jerusalem. The second reason, claimed the association, is that while voting in Judea and Samaria is under PA supervision, that is not the case in Gaza where the PA has no control and does not recognize the legality of Hamas institutions.
Hamas accuses PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas of using the courts to "undercut Palestinian democracy."
In order to understand why these local elections kicked up such a storm, one must understand the symbiotic relationship that exists between the social and political currents in Palestinian Arab society.
Fatah, Hamas and what is between them
When the proposed elections were announced, the question arose as to the degree of participation Hamas would be allowed to have in Judea and Samaria, since it is clear that the region contains a good many supporters of the movement At present, Hamas is a participant in the elections, and is vigorously campaigning for its candidates, but, of course, everything can change at the last minute. The PA heads are members of Fatah and are naturally not pleased at the thought of the participation of their bitter rival, Hamas. They fear Hamas' success because it will immediately be translated – on the ground and in public consciousness – as national success. They are well aware that some voters will choose Hamas, not because they agree with Hamas ideology, but in order to punish the corrupt and degenerate PA.
On the other hand, elections that prevent the public from expressing its support for Hamas in political terms will not be considered legitimate and will also be seen as a sign of the PA cow towing to the "occupation," that is, Israel. In addition, PA leaders fear that if they forbid the participation of Hamas in the Judea and Samaria elections, that organization will not allow Fatah to take part in the Gaza elections. A mutual exclusion, if you will, which will deepen the rift between the two movements and the "two sections of the homeland," and prove to the world that the "Palestinian national paradox" – the creation of a united people from the existing collection of clans (hamoulot) and political groups – is an utter failure and that Israel is correct when it claims that there is "no Palestinian people."
PLO and PA leader Jibril Rajoub, announced last week that "we will not allow anyone to Islamicize our society." This declaration is a broad hint to Hamas, telling it that even if the Hamas candidates win the elections, the PLO will not allow the Islamist faithful to force their cultural agenda on the public.
This has been seen by many as a declaration of war against Hamas, especially if it gains control over the PLO's most valuable asset – the rule over Judea and Samaria – after it already succeeded in doing so in Gaza.
Conspiracy theories are being floated at a furious pace as part of the disinformation war raging with regard to the elections. Some Palestinian spokespeople claim that Israel would like Hamas to take part in the elections and come out the winner in certain local contests. If that happens, Israel could tell the world that this proves that a Palestinian State in Judea and Samaria would soon become a Hamas state, just as it did in Gaza, and therefore such a state must not be established. That alone is good reason not to allow Hamas to take part in the elections.
However, it is hard to imagine a decision to that effect being announced, especially since Europe and America are not prepared to allow any group to be rejected, even an Islamist one. The West is of the opinion that Islamist groups must participate in public activity, so they will not be pushed to the sidelines where they turn to terror and violence. If the PA does not allow Hamas to take part in the elections, the grants it gets from the West might be affected adversely; grants which frequently find their way into the deep pockets of the PA leaders and their family members.
Instead of dealing with this complication, the easiest thing to do is find technical reasons to put off the elections – for an indefinite period.
The clans speak up
Another question regarding the local elections is the status of the clans (hamoulot) and the heads of these large extended families. Everyone knows that in most of the cities and villages of Judea and Samaria the clans run the show.
The clan's needs trump all ideology, whether it is that of the nationalist PLO or the religious Hamas. The sheikhs have more influence on day to day life and decisions than the corrupt leaders from Ramallah and the Jihadists in Gaza. It is impossible to have local elections without making sure the heads of the clans win key positions, because if that is not ensured, there will be no elections at all in those strongholds.
The local hamoulot swing back and forth, sometimes hoping for autonomy in their small bits of territory, and sometimes trying to be part of larger nationalist bodies such as the PLO and Hamas. On the one hand, the sheikhs would like to be able to make decisions independently and thereby gain honor and authority, but on the other hand, they need the PA so as to get jobs in the Authority as well as allocations to fund local projects. If the sheikh of a local hamoula wants to have enough influence in Ramallah to receive a grant to replace his sewage system, he has to play the politics game and enter the cold and all-embracing system along with his entire hamoula, even though that means accepting dictates and an agenda that are not his.
The problem is that if the sheikh enters too tight an agreement with the Ramallah mafia in order to get jobs and budgets, he runs the risk of infuriating loyal Hamas supporters in his hamoula and other clans. A good many Palestinians feel that Hamas will eventually gain control over the area and that anyone closely identified with the PLO and the PA for the sake of immediate payoffs, may one day find himself and his hamoula paying a high price for this identification. Hamas has already proven in Gaza that it neither forgets nor forgives anyone who identifies with the PLO.
In this context, we must bear in mind the "sticks, stones and carrots" plan that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman presented just a few weeks ago,
according to which the security establishment will evaluate each village and city in Judea and Samaria individually.
Towns and villages which have spawned terrorists will be treated harshly through curfews, preventing residents from going in and out of the gates, demolishing homes, not giving out work permits. A village – that is, a hamoula – that does not allow terrorists to set out from within its limits will receive economic benefits. This plan is meant to strengthen local leadership at the expense of PLO and Hamas national politicians. It is not a coincidence that many of the officials in the PA said that Liberman's plan is an attempt to destroy the PA and create an alternativel leadership. The local elections and the question of the sheikhs' authority are factors in the public debate about Liberman's plan.
Will Hamas go establishment?
The most important issue in this election campaign is the question of whether Hamas has changed from a religious Jihad movement that sanctifies being anti-Israel to a regional authority that sees to water supply and sanitation. Halad Mashaal related to this question indirectly in a speech he gave in Jordan after the end of the mourning period for his mother. He stressed the main points of Hamas, the ones it will never give up on: the right of return, the freeing of prisoners and "freedom" – meaning freeing all of Falestin, including Tel Aviv and Haifa, from Jewish occupation. He seemed to feel an obligation to stress these points because in actuality, he has entered an election campaign that instead of putting his men on the frontlines of Jihad has placed them in the forefront of digging sewage systems in the villages of Judea and Samari.
The gap between his aspirations and reality is the reason Mashaal is constantly spouting bombastic declarations. He knows that the Salafist Jihadists, who jeeringly call him and his movement "Israel's border police" are lying in ambush for him just around the corner, because he doesn't allow them to launch rockets on Israel as often as their Jihadist hearts desire. Hamas security forces in Gaza hunt down the Jihadists, imprison them and sometimes finish them off in underground torture chambers.
So is Hamas good or bad for Israel? Does it or does it not serve Israel's best interests? Is it good or bad to allow Hamas to participate in the Judea and Samaria local elections? The elections, however, have been postponed and it is quite possible that we will never know the complete answers to our questions.
Translated from Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky