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Palestinian Factions Agree on Rules for First Election in 15 Years

In a step that could ensure long-delayed parliamentary and presidential elections set for later this year actually take place, 14 rival Palestinian factions agreed Tuesday on steps to advance the process.

The factions gathered for two days in Cairo as they attempted to bridge the gaps between them. By the end of the meeting, their representatives issued a statement pledging to respect the election results.

Palestinian police, seen as less politicized than other security forces, will secure polling sites, the statement continued, adding that President Mahmoud Abbas will establish an elections court with representatives from the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem to adjudicate disputes.

Political prisoners are to be released and all sides will ensure freedom of expression during the campaign, according to the factions’ statement.

There are 2.8 million eligible voters in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Islamic Jihad, however, said it would boycott the votes, citing its opposition to interim peace deals the Palestine Liberation Organization signed with Israel in the 1990s. Islamic Jihad did not take part in previous Palestinian balloting in 1996 and 2006.

Fatah leader Rafaat Elyan told The Media Line the understandings in Cairo came “because the street does not want disputes, excuses or justifications for postponing the elections.

“I wish they had reached agreement on the issue of reconciliation [between Fatah and Hamas] as well,” added Elyan.

The parliamentary and presidential polls in the Palestinian territories are set for May 22 and July 31, respectively.

The 85-year-old Abbas, now 15 years into what was to have been a four-year term as head of the Palestinian Authority, did not announce whether he was planning to enter the race, but many top Fatah leaders told The Media Line that they will nominate him.

Everyone knows that Mohammed Dahlan is going to run on an independent list. If this happens, it will greatly weaken the chances of victory for President Mahmoud Abbas’ list

Ahmed Rafiq Awad, president of the Jerusalem Center for Future Studies at Al-Quds University, told The Media Line the agreement reached in Egypt was a “necessity that reflects realism,” adding that the “result wasn’t complete, and it requires more meetings next month.”

Awad says the Palestinian cause and the factions are facing a major crisis, and there is great pressure on all to show unity.

Fatah, long the most popular faction, is facing an intra-party split ahead of the expected elections.

Abbas expelled Fatah member Mohammed Dahlan, now in exile in exile in Abu Dhabi, from the movement in 2011 and has since dismissed hundreds of his supporters.

The Abbas–Dahlan power struggle is tearing the faction apart. Dahlan’s supporters say they will run for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the PA’s unicameral parliament.

“Everyone knows that Mohammed Dahlan is going to run on an independent list. If this happens, it will greatly weaken the chances of victory for President Mahmoud Abbas’ list,” Awad says.

The schism within Fatah threatens to affect the outcome of the legislative election and risks a repeat of the 2006 loss to main rival Hamas, as history seems to be repeating itself.

Awad says the bitter internal divide will have a major impact on the future of the oldest Palestinian faction.

“Failure to enter the elections unified will greatly affect the movement,” he says.

He says Fatah must “organize its house before the elections and it does not want a repeat of the 2006 election.”

The Islamist movement Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, shocked many and won in an unexpected landslide at the last PLC election in 2006. Humiliated by the results, Abbas’ Fatah group did not take part in the government led by Hamas.

One year later, that standoff led to Hamas’ bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip and the split in Palestinian governance.

After many years of boycotting Marwan and not visiting him, now, Marwan became important to them

But another split may be looming on the horizon. Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences plus 40 years in an Israeli prison, says that he wants to run for Palestinian Authority president this summer.

An Israeli court convicted the now 61-year-old Barghouti in 2004. Israel says that he was responsible for murdering four Israelis and a Greek Orthodox monk-priest during the Second Intifada, when he was a leader of Fatah’s Tanzim paramilitary offshoot and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade military wing.

Barghouti enjoys widespread popular support among Fatah loyalists and is positively viewed by other factions.

PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein Sheikh, one of Abbas’ closest confidants, has requested an Israeli permit to visit Barghouti in prison, the Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper reported on Tuesday. Most likely Sheikh wants to convince Barghouti not to enter the PLC election on an independent slate, and not to compete against Abbas in the presidential vote.

“After many years of boycotting Marwan and not visiting him, now, Marwan became important to them,” wondered Elyan.

According to many Palestinians, Barghouti has become an existential threat to the members of the Fatah establishment, and a threat to their political future.

Elyan says that Barghouti and Dahlan are close in their positions and could form an alliance. If the two men either unite or both run separately, it will greatly weaken the Abbas list’s chances of winning.

Senior Fatah leader Jibril Rajoub also wants to meet with Barghouti, The Media Line’s sources in Ramallah say.

“They are trying to bargain and negotiate with him to persuade him to not run,” the sources say.

According to sources, Barghouti is still insisting on nominating himself and forming an independent list, but the next few days may reveal that Abbas and his group of officials have been able to persuade Barghouti not to move forward with his plan, by making promises that he “could not refuse.”

In 2004, Barghouti announced his intention to run in the PA presidential election in January 2005. But he withdrew after senior Fatah officials exerted tremendous pressure on him.

“Marwan is an important figure, a kingmaker, and a member of the [Fatah] Central Committee. He popular with the Fatah base, and expresses a clear vision in the movement,” Awad said.