In the last week of April, Birzeit University, the public Palestinian university located near Ramallah, held student council elections. When the 9,000 votes were tallied, the Islamic Bloc, Hamas’ student association, had won 25 of 51 seats. Shabiba, aligned with Fatah, came in second with 21 seats, while the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s Democratic Pole group won the remaining five seats. Hamas’ grown-up leaders were quick to hail the victory, while Fatah chiefs quietly bemoaned their loss. Birzeit is traditionally a Fatah stronghold, but this was Hamas’ second win there in as many years.
Middle East analysts paid close attention to the student election, and when the results were tabulated, many wondered whether Hamas’ victory could be taken as an accurate bellwether of the Palestinian electorate at large. With municipal elections scheduled for Oct. 8, would West Bank Palestinians finally oust Fatah?
Six months later, those municipal elections have been postponed. Last Thursday, a Ramallah court pushed back the election until at least December, citing “procedural problems in Gaza,” among the reasons for its decision. Those “procedural problems,” likely refer to a court decision the previous week that disqualified four Fatah candidate slates in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas accused Fatah of sabotaging the election after some of its West Bank members were suddenly arrested, in an effort, Hamas said, to dissuade them from running in the election.
The Ramallah court will meet again next week to again consider what to do about the election, but it seems unlikely a change of mind is in the cards, given the Palestinians’ recent history. It’s been 10 years since Fatah and Hamas competed in an election against each other. The last time they faced off at the polls, in the 2006 legislative elections (an event that had itself been postponed), Hamas humiliated Fatah, 74 seats to 45.
In the ensuing decade, Palestinians have endured an array of electoral indecencies. In 2010, for example, local elections were postponed, then cancelled, by the government (illegally, the Palestinian High Court later ruled) after Hamas would not allow the Central Elections Commission to operate in Gaza and boycotted the West Bank vote. A year later, the Palestinians tried again, but local elections were indefinitely postponed. In 2012, Hamas once more withdrew from local elections, leaving Fatah to claim a tainted victory. (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t faced presidential elections since 2005.)
October’s election was supposed to be different. Hamas, surprisingly, announced its intention to contend alongside Fatah, leaving experts to deduce that either a) Hamas believed the West Bank was there for the taking, or b) that it feared boycotting another election would frustrate Palestinians and possibly give the faltering Fatah a much-needed lifeline.
Had the October election gone ahead as scheduled, would Hamas have won big, adding the West Bank to its Gaza garrison? Would Fatah have survived? How would Israel have responded? And would the result have prompted the United States, European Union, United Kingdom and Canada, all of which classify Hamas or its military wing as a terrorist organization, to re-evaluate their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? We’ll just have to keep waiting to find out.