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Palestinian elections are intended to keep Hamas in check

February 16, 2021 at 6:02 pm

A Palestinian member of Central Elections Commission displays an information leaflet following the opening of the first Voter Information and Registration Centre in Gaza City on 10 February 2021. [MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images]

In 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) signed a peace agreement with Israel, ending a six-year uprising against the Zionist state’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem. The peace endeavour, backed by the international community, aimed to crack down on the Palestinian resistance, mainly that of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which was formed in 1987 at the start of the First Intifada.

When the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established according to the terms of the peace agreement known as the Oslo Accords, it took responsibility for some of the occupied territories. This was celebrated by the Palestinians, even those who objected to its creation, as a partial victory. However, just a few months later, the PA carried out a fierce crackdown against Hamas. It arrested and tortured its officials and members, and killed many within its prisons and beyond.

One of the most notorious PA attacks on Hamas took place in 1996 following the Friday prayer at Palestine Mosque in the centre of Gaza City. The PA security forces killed 17 worshippers and wounded hundreds more. The Palestinians in Gaza reacted angrily against the PA, but they were met with violence that ended the protests in less than two days.

This shocked the Palestinians, but Hamas was not surprised. The movement knew that the PA was created to undermine legitimate resistance to Israel’s occupation.

The PA thus continued to crack down on Hamas, and most of its senior officials across the West Bank and Gaza Strip were imprisoned. Ayman Sharawneh, who ended his eight-month hunger strike in an Israeli prison in March 2013 and was deported to Gaza, told me that Jibril Rajoub, who was the head of the PA’s Preventive Security Force before 2006, beat him with his own hands in a PA prison in Hebron. Torture was the norm in PA prisons, especially against those involved in resistance activities. The PA protected Israel; that was and remains its role.

READ: Palestinian talks in Cairo failed to consider the occupation 

In September 2000, the late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon triggered the Second (Al-Aqsa) Intifada when he entered Al-Aqsa Mosque protected by hundreds of armed police. The Palestinians were suffering under Israeli aggression, as well as PA corruption and deviation from the national pathway. Their anger at Sharon’s provocative visit turned from street protests to a full-blown uprising.

A Palestinian man shows his ink-stained finger after casting his ballot during the municipal elections in the village of Tammun, east of Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on 13 May 2017. [JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images]

A Palestinian man shows his ink-stained finger after casting his ballot during the municipal elections in the village of Tammun, east of Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on 13 May 2017. [JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP via Getty Images]

Working alongside smaller Palestinian factions, including Islamic Jihad and the PLO’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hamas spearheaded the armed resistance. PA and Israeli restrictions meant that arms and ammunition were hard to acquire, so Hamas started to make its own.

Such resistance, mainly by the armed wing of Hamas, the Izz ad-Dine Al-Qassam Brigades, claimed the lives of dozens of Israelis, at great personal cost to the people of Palestine. In 2005, Sharon withdrew settlers and troops unilaterally out of the Gaza Strip, which was the Hamas stronghold.

The movement then fell into the Oslo trap. In coordination with the PA, Israel, certain Arab states and the US persuaded Hamas to participate in the 2006 election for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), which is the Palestinian parliament. The Emir of Qatar, Tamim Bin Hamad, told CNN anchor Christine Amanpour that the US asked his father when he was the Emir to persuade Hamas to take part in the election, and he did. Having refused to take part in the 1996 elections, Hamas agreed to do so in 2006. It was expected to win a minority of seats in the PLC, which would then have passed a law preventing any faction from carrying weapons except the PA security services.

That was a clear attempt to disarm and contain Hamas. Nevertheless, it swallowed the bait and fell into the election trap. However, the movement won a decisive victory with a majority in the PLC. The PA, Israel, the US and the international community rejected the legitimacy of the election that they had all called for, and did not recognise the Hamas victory. The movement faced an immediate blockade as the PA under Mahmoud Abbas cracked down on its members in the West Bank. That blockade is ongoing.

READ: The Cairo talks may be difficult, but could be relatively easy 

During the past 14 years, Israel has been backed by some regional countries, including Egypt, in the efforts to overthrow the de facto Hamas administration in Gaza. Israel has launched numerous armed incursions into the besieged territory as well as three major military offensives against the largely civilian Palestinian population; tens of thousands of Palestinians have been killed and wounded. Following Israel’s 2012 offensive, a UN report predicted that the Gaza Strip would be “unliveable” by 2020. None of this has brought about an end to Hamas, nor its popularity among ordinary Palestinians, who recognise that it is neither corrupt like the Fatah-controlled PA nor easily swayed from its objective to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation.

Now, however, Hamas is being dragged into another election trap as part of a new attempt to strip it of its arms and popular support. Egypt and its compliant media are at the forefront of the Israeli-led siege and propaganda war against Hamas. Cairo controls Gaza’s “window to the world”, the Rafah Border Crossing, but has been opening the border to allow people and goods to move in and out of the territory. Qatar, meanwhile, has increased its support for Hamas and major projects in Gaza, including a pipeline for the Gaza power plant. The PA, which has been a key partner in Israel’s siege, has promised to ease restrictions imposed on Hamas members and officials in the occupied West Bank. It has also promised to pay the salaries of government employees in Gaza.

It seems that the elections are going ahead and several countries, including Egypt, Qatar and Russia, have pledged to respect the results, even if Hamas wins. That is what the movement’s officials have confirmed. The fact that the PA is calling for the elections, though, means that the US and Israel are pushing for them. Having failed to destroy Hamas by force of arms, it looks as if they now intend to keep the movement in check by tying its hands through elections. It is another trap, but one in which Hamas seems willing to trust, for the time being at least. Clearly, its leaders believe that they have nothing to lose, and a lot to gain.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.