By Mark Osborn
As Solidarity goes to press the Palestinians go to the polls in the first parliamentary election since 1996. 1.27 million Palestinians are eligible to vote and commentators predict an 85% turnout, with Hamas and Fatah closely contesting the election on 25 January.
Hamas did not participate in the last parliamentary poll, but recently beat Fatah in municipal elections in the main West Bank cities.
Seven hundred and twenty eight candidates are contesting 132 seats in the Legislative Council. Half will be elected by constituency and half by proportional representation.
The Israeli paper, Ha’aretz, considers that, “It is clear that among the elected legislators will be many candidates defined as independents. Some of the independents will be Hamas supporters, but they will not have a hard time joining a Fatah-led coalition. It appears that it will be a comfortable arrangement for Hamas — its people will indeed be in the opposition, but some will also be in the coalition, and so they will be able to cautiously plan the continuation of their path…”
Hamas’ charter demands the destruction of Israel but some Hamas leaders have recently discussed talks with Israel: “Negotiation is not a taboo,” one said. “But the political crime is when we sit with the Israelis and then come out with a wide smile to tell the Palestinian people that there is progress, when there is not.”
However, Hamas’ exiled supreme leader, Khaled Mashal, has ruled out negotiations with Israel. “We don’t have to make concessions to satisfy Israel. Israel respects us when we are strong ... This requires a long battle.”
In any case Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas and says the group must disarm and abandon the demand for the destruction of Israel.
The key battleground between Fatah and Hamas is the role of the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas says – truthfully — that the PA is corrupt and wasteful. They say that the Oslo policy has failed and no longer exists.
Fatah have countered (especially in Gaza) by attempting to buy loyalty, recruiting thousands of youth onto the PA payroll. An Israeli paper remarks, “No one will be surprised if the Palestinian treasury cannot pay the January salaries the week after the election.”
Fatah have warned that if Hamas does well in the elections, the United States and EU states will stop giving the PA financial aid. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya replied: “The Palestinian Authority has enough money, and we have untapped gas resources on the Gaza coast... Venezuela and other countries in South America aren’t afraid of America; why should we be afraid?”
Fatah leader in Gaza Mohammed Dahlan ridiculed Hamas, saying, “Oslo failed? So how is it that you are now participating in the election campaign?”
PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is trying to convince the Palestinians that important achievements have come from the Oslo process and that it has a future. Fatah has used excerpts from the statements of Acting Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, claiming he hopes to begin negotiations on the final-status agreement immediately after the Palestinian and Israeli elections.
The Al-Quds newspaper last week claims that Olmert is hinting that the Palestinians in Jerusalem will not remain under Israeli rule forever and that he is prepared to divide Israel’s capital in the future.
The Palestinian media, which support Fatah, are highlighting every poll showing that most Israelis want more evacuations in the West Bank and are prepared for concessions in Jerusalem.
Fatah is also emphasising that Hamas is an Islamist movement which will attempt to impose religious rules on Palestinian society, and by saying that Hamas “opposes all negotiation and seeks to maintain and strengthen its military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades.”