Ismail Haniyeh, who heads Hamas’s political bureau (right), is shown in his Gaza office on November 26 presenting Hanna Nasser, chairman of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, the Islamist party’s official declaration of intent to participate in Palestinian Authority elections. (Haniyeh Press Office - handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Quest for Legitimacy Seen behind Hamas’s Change of Heart on Elections

Some observers say Qatar, a major donor to the Gaza Strip, exerted pressure to ensure a vote will take place

A prominent Arab writer and analyst says Hamas’s goal of being recognized as the legitimate ruler of the Gaza Strip is what led it to reverse its stance and come out in favor of Palestinian elections.

“Hamas is acting as a de facto government in Gaza and wants to be internationally recognized as the official authority,” Abdel Bari Atwan, a Syrian analyst and editor-in-chief of Rai al-Youm, a pan-Arab news and opinion website, told The Media Line.

“Hamas wants this election to happen,” Atwan said, explaining that the Palestinian Islamist group successfully ran in 2006, the last time there was a vote.

Hamas threw its hat into the ring on October 28 when Ismail Haniyeh, head of the movement’s political bureau, informed Palestinian Central Elections Commission chairman Hanna Nasser that the group would participate. A month earlier, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas promised that there would be a long-overdue vote.

“The Hamas government [in the Gaza Strip] is now acting independently of the PA and is trying to exercise this independence by building international relationships, especially with major powers like the US and Russia,” Atwan said.

As an example, he cited the group’s recent approval for an American field hospital in the Gaza Strip.

He also noted that it has been conducting indirect negotiations with Israel through Qatar, adding that Doha – a major donor to the Gaza Strip – had played a role in encouraging Hamas to agree to an election, although with no need for pressure.

Husam Badran, a senior Hamas official based in Qatar and a former leader of the movement’s military wing in the West Bank, told The Media Line that the group agreed to the election to end its split with Fatah, the ruling party in the PA, and to forge the unity needed for the Palestinian cause.

“The election might be a chance to achieve this,” he said.

Badran insisted that the Islamist movement made the decision on its own, calling claims that Qatar played a role “major falsehoods designed to distort the facts.”

Yet Moen al-Taher, a Jordan-based Palestinian political writer and former member of the PLO’s Revolutionary Council, told The Media Line that there indeed had been pressure from Qatar, although it had been directed at both sides.

“The PA and Hamas were under pressure by Qatar to go to elections with a consensus list of candidates,” Taher said. “I don’t think Qatar pressured Hamas. Rather, it put pressure on both sides to form a single list.”

He added that Hamas understood a rejection would increase support for Fatah among Palestinians.

Nevertheless, he stressed, Hamas has nothing to lose, because even if Fatah wins the vote, the Islamists in the Gaza Strip will not hand over their weapons to the PA. The same will happen if Hamas wins, he said, with the PA refusing to hand over the West Bank.

“This election will not solve their differences,” he explained, “unless they first reach a consensus.”

Not to be left out, of course, are the true pessimists – who say the schism between the PA and Hamas is so great that it will prevent elections from taking place no matter what happens.

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