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No Vote in Gaza, as Palestinian Split Widens

But Palestinian experts, politicians, believe reconciliation is still possible

When West Bank Palestinians vote in municipal elections in October, they won’t be joined by their peers in Gaza, in yet another sign that the much heralded attempt to put Palestine under unified rule has run aground.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) said on Wednesday that the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip would not be included in voting, which will be restricted to the West Bank under the rule of the rival Fatah movement. The announcement set off another round of mutual recriminations on who is at fault for keeping Palestine divided and obstructing democracy.

Salam Fayyad’s government denounced Hamas for hampering the work of the Central Elections Committee (CEC) in Gaza, making elections there impossible. Municipal elections were originally scheduled for July 9. These were postponed to October 22 following the reconciliation agreement signed between Fatah and Hamas in Cairo in May, in order to allow simultaneous elections in both territories.    
"The Central Committee cannot prepare for elections in the Gaza Strip due to the ongoing closure of the Committee’s offices in Gaza by Hamas, which prevents the staff from working and has even confiscated the Committee’s cars," CEC wrote the government.

The Palestinian Authority still officially refers to the West Bank as "the northern districts," referring to territorial unity with Gaza. But the political distance between the two Palestinian entities, separated by 25 miles of Israeli land, rarely seemed greater.

"Reconciliation is full of difficulties, but it’s too early to jump to conclusions about the end of reconciliation," Basem Ezbidi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah told The Media Line. "Efforts will continue, and I wouldn’t rule out elections taking place in Gaza by October."

Ezbeidi said that reconciliation came under pressure of widespread popular demand and therefore neither Hamas nor Fatah wanted to be seen as the side responsible for unraveling it.

Sameeh Hamoudah, a colleague of Ezbidi’s at Bir Zeit, speculated that the PA’s insistence not to postpone the municipal elections a second time could be a negotiating tactic in the reconciliation process.

"It could be part of the pressure placed on Hamas to compromise on political issues, such as the identity of the interim government prime minister," Hamoudah told The Media Line.  

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu-Zuhri said it was natural for Hamas not to cooperate with an "illegal" elections committee, since it was set up unilaterally by Fatah.

"The Central Electoral Commission should have been formed by consensus according to the reconciliation agreement struck in Cairo," Abu-Zuri told AFP.    

Ahmad Yousef, a former advisor to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Hanniyah, said that a prevailing atmosphere of mutual suspicion was the root cause of Hamas’ refusal to cooperate with the PA at this time.

"We need to create a good environment first," Yousef told The Media Line. "The reconciliation is in stalemate … we are still divided." He said the PA should have postponed the municipal elections to conduct them along with the parliamentary elections, scheduled within a year.

But Mahmoud Khalaf, a member of the Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) in Gaza, was optimistic that municipal elections could still take place in Gaza and the West Bank simultaneously.

"This does not bode well, but we in the DFLP are still trying to push an agreement for conducting elections at the same time," Khalaf told The Media Line. “Agreements were reached in the past [between Fatah and Hamas] on issues such as high school final exams, even in the wake of the political divide."

With the prospect of elections taking place in the West Bank alone, Ezbidi, the Ramallah political scientist, said that the prospect of "free and fair" elections for Hamas candidates in the West Bank seemed slim.

"Hamas candidates will face problems," he said.