Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2012, Pages 11, 66

Gaza on the Ground

Palestinian Politics: A Plague on Both Their Houses, or Promise for the Future?

By Mohammed Omer

A protester holding a banner and the Palestinian flag takes part in a demonstration in Ramallah calling for unity between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, May 30, 2012. (Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

Gaza's de facto Hamas government has given the green light to the Palestinian Central Election Commission (PCEC) to begin updating voter registration data in the Gaza Strip—an electoral requirement not undertaken since the 2006 parliamentary election, in which Hamas received a majority of votes in the West Bank as well as Gaza.

At a May 28 news conference following a meeting with Hamas leader and de facto Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, PCEC president Hanna Nasser described this long-overdue task as a first step in the right direction, paving the way to a long overdue election. Although the PCEC, appointed by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, reopened its Gaza offices in January, it could not begin updating voter data until it received permission from the Gaza Ministry of Interior. The new data will include as many as 250,000 eligible but not yet registered voters, according to Nasser.

"The commission starts its latest operations with an office in each of Gaza's five governorates," Nasser said, adding that he expects data collection in Gaza and the West Bank to take five weeks.

The long-delayed updating of voter registration is the result of a May 20 meeting in Cairo between leaders of Fatah and Hamas, who agreed that the PCEC's work in Gaza would begin by month's end. They further agreed to nominate an interim "government of independent technocrats."

Previous agreements—such as the one signed by Hamas and Fatah in Cairo in April 2011 and the February 2012 agreement signed in Doha—failed at the 11th hour because of Israeli interference, including a threat to cut aid to the PA and withhold taxes Israel collects on behalf of the PA. This left many Gazans with the impression that Palestinian unity is opposed by Israel and the U.S., which cuts aid to Palestinians if Hamas becomes part of a coalition government. Palestinian youth groups in Gaza and the West Bank have begun campaigning under the slogan, "This time, it must work."

At the May 28 press conference, Haniyeh's Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed Awad expressed his hope that allowing the commission to begin its work is the first step to building trust among the people and that true unity is indeed on the horizon.

"I hope that this will be the foundation for ending Palestinian division," he said, "and that Palestinian citizens will really feel that the reconciliation has begun in light of the new government and the resolution of all outstanding issues."

His words echoed those of President Abbas at the time of the Doha agreement, when he said that "without elections there will be no reconciliation."

While Awad said he hopes the PCEC will operate throughout the Palestinian territories, including Jerusalem, he acknowledged uncertainty as to whether Israel will allow it to do so. It is particularly unlikely that ministers affiliated with Islamic Palestinian parties will be allowed to travel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is a real concern for many Palestinians, since Israel arrested and jailed most of the elected members of the Palestinian Legistlative Council, along with government ministers.

As expressed in the May 20 agreement, both factions envision a temporary six-month government to be headed by President Abbas. During this period, the government will focus on preparing for the elections and on campaigning. Potential interim government ministers reportedly have been nominated from the West Bank and Gaza, although their names were not initially made public. An aide to President Abbas told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, that he personally was not pleased with those nominated internally, "due to their lack of experience running ministries." This does not appear to be a problem with average Palestinians, however.

Government employees and their families in Gaza are cautiously optimistic about the upcoming elections. As Umm Fahed, 64, who lives in Rafah and is the mother of three policemen, notes, should Israel again choose to block funds—and thus her sons' salaries—"democracy will fail to fill our stomachs."

Among the general population, especially those once permitted to work in Israel, optimism is more prevalent. With the advent of the Arab Spring, increased awareness within Israel of the moral, political and financial cost of the continued occupation, and ever-increasing international support for the plight of the Palestinians, many now feel the time for change is approaching. Unity of commitment and goals within Palestinian society is viewed not only as a crucial step in the process—even more importantly, it is recognized as a peaceful one.

Award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer reports on the Gaza Strip, and maintains the Web site <www.rafahtoday.org>. He can be reached at <[email protected]>. Follow him on Twitter: @MoGaza.