It wasn’t big national issues that sent Sohaib Zahda into politics. When, earlier this year, the Palestinian Central Elections Commission slated Oct. 8 as the date for the municipal vote, the 33-year-old boxing coach and competitive cyclist saw an opportunity. He could manage and develop Hebron’s municipal sports facilities as an elected official.
Zahda and a few friends created “the independent Ahl al-Balad” list, Arabic for “people of the city.” His group of eight candidates—including a number of Hamas supporters—sought to challenge Fatah’s hegemony in the city council, though he himself supports neither of the two largest Palestinian factions.
“I believe political parties don’t serve the public, but rather their own narrow interests,” said Zahda, a member of the Palestinian fencing team at the Athens Olympics in 2004. “They offer no solutions to improve people’s lives and only create problems.”
After failing to hold a nationwide vote in over a decade, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided last year to hold municipal elections. Unlike the 2012 municipal elections, which Hamas boycotted, these elections were backed by both major parties, though Hamas decided not to field its own candidates and instead endorsed independent lists like Ahl al-Balad. Zahda and his colleagues had already paid 1,000 Jordanian dinars ($1,400) as down payment to the elections commission when the Palestinian Supreme Court ruled Sept. 8 that the vote would be postponed to an unknown date. A decision Oct. 3 ruled that elections could take place in the West Bank only, prompting the Central Elections Commission to postpone the vote by six months, even as it warned the ruling would “further deepen the internal division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip”—laying the groundwork for a future postponement.
Few Palestinians believe the Supreme Court ruling was independent of political influences. According to a public opinion poll conducted in late September by Arab World for Research and Development, a Ramallah-based research firm, 47 percent of respondents in the West Bank faulted Abbas’ Palestinian Authority for the postponement of the elections. In Gaza, citizens similarly blamed their own rulers, with 44 percent of respondents placing responsibility for the delay on Hamas. The elections were highly popular: Over 75 percent of respondents said they supported them, and over 68 percent objected to the postponement. A caricature in the mainstream Jerusalem-based daily al-Quds portrayed the Supreme Court as a hand using a gavel to crush a ballot box used for the municipal elections.
Zahda believed the court came to Abbas’ aid to rescue him from an embarrassing defeat. “Honestly speaking, here in Palestine we have no independent courts,” he said. “The president can do whatever he wants with the courts. Besides, all the judges are appointed by the Palestinian Authority.”
But even before the September court decision, threatening messages began arriving from both Israel and the PA, indicating that Fatah was bent on avoiding a humiliating outcome. On August 24, Suzanne Awiwi, an Islamist candidate on Zahra’s list, received a phone call from an unknown Israeli number. The man on the other end of the line identified himself as Captain Adib, an Israeli security official, and demanded that she withdraw her candidacy.
“I told him these were the elections for Hebron, not for the [Israeli] Civil Administration,” Awiwi told local media. “He said he had no problem to arrest me or my husband, adding, ‘Watch out for your home, watch out for your children.’” When she later asked Adib what she would receive in return for her withdrawal, he offered to pay her money at a meeting in Tel Aviv or Netanya. The Shin Bet did not respond to a request for comment on Awiwi’s allegations.
Meanwhile, another independent candidate, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, reported being approached by a senior PA official over the summer and asked to withdraw his candidacy in return for political positions or money. “In brief, he said he didn’t want us to run so that Fatah can win,” the candidate said. “He stated so openly, and asked what job I wanted in return.”
In the absence of elections, the only indicators of Fatah’s popularity in the West Bank are student union elections on campus and public-opinion polls. On both fronts, things look grim for the ruling party.
In April, the Hamas student list at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah trounced the Fatah list 26-19. A day earlier, Hamas and Fatah reached a tie at Hebron’s Polytechnic University. Elections at al-Najah University in Nablus were postponed indefinitely, frustrating Hamas candidates who anticipated a sure win.
According to a public opinion poll carried out in late September by the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research, a highly respected Ramallah polling group led by professor Khalil Shikaki, 61 percent of respondents in the West Bank and Gaza demand the resignation of Mahmoud Abbas as PA president. If presidential elections were held today, the poll found, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would defeat Abbas 48 percent to 45 percent. Elections, it would therefore seem, were a risk that Fatah preferred not to take.
Hamas, which predicted a landslide victory in the elections, was furious with the decision of the Ramallah court. “We will not accept this unilateral tampering in the democratic process,” Hamas said in a press statement published Oct. 4, claiming that hundreds of its West Bank candidates were forced to withdraw under pressure and harassment from PA security agencies. “The [Hamas] movement considers Fatah to be avoiding the electoral process and trying to falsify the will of the Palestinian street.”
But while Hamas’ rage bears little consequence for the West Bank, Zahda, the Hebron resident, warned that the stunted democratic process would inevitably result in popular violence. “Many of the problems happening today, with young people going to roadblocks to stab [Israeli soldiers], have to do with the Palestinian Authority and its corruption. The PA has left the people hopeless. Ordinary people face two big problems on a daily basis: Israeli occupation and PA corruption.”
In a desperate bid to rehabilitate his party’s reputation and consolidate power, Abbas is instead convening the Seventh Fatah conference this month in Ramallah, where hundreds of party members from the Palestinian Territories and the diaspora, currently divided between Abbas loyalists and partisans of former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, are set to elect a new Central Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, and new Revolutionary Council, the movement’s legislative forum. But it seems unlikely that this meeting will do much to assuage popular alienation from Fatah and from the political system in the West Bank.
Hossam, a 27-year-old business entrepreneur, took time off to assist his father, who was running for mayor as a member of Fatah in a small West Bank city. The Supreme Court decision was “awful,” he said. “I was hoping we would have proper elections,” said Hossam, withholding his real name and city of residence for fear of political repercussions against his father. “Data shows that governance improves with regular and continuous elections. People are held more accountable and perform better because their job is on the line, and there’s less corruption.” Hossam has many ideas about how to improve Palestinian political conduct but said his father’s Fatah party will have to give way to something completely new for any of them to be implemented.
“Fatah is the weakest it’s ever been in its history,” Hossam said. “Abbas has no leg to stand on. He may organize a parade with 20 cars in Ramallah with banners and flags saying ‘we support you,’ but that’s the extent of it.”
To read more of Elhanan Miller’s reporting from the Middle East, click here.
Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.