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Hamas election boycott leaves West Bank Palestinians with only one choice

Campaigning begins today for West Bank local elections this month. Hamas might have done well in some cities, like Nablus, but its boycott means rival Fatah is already the de facto winner.

By Ben LynfieldCorrespondent / October 6, 2012

Nablus, West Bank

Municipal elections in the West Bank are still three weeks away, but the self-styled patriarch of Nablus politics, Ghassan Shakaa, speaks as if he is already in the mayor's office.

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He describes one of his key plans – an after-school program for teens who, he laments, currently languish in coffee shops – as if it's a sure thing.

"We have already started to engage in discussions with the youth of Nablus themselves and we have asked them to discuss among themselves what they need and what we can do for them,'' says Mr. Shakaa, a veteran leader of the West Bank's ruling Fatah movement.

Shakaa may be justified in his confidence. With Hamas, one of the two main Palestinian political movements boycotting the elections, he has a good shot.

He was mayor of the ancient city for a decade after the launch of Palestinian self-rule under his friend and late leader Yasser Arafat in 1994 and is a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's executive committee. The Shakaas have been at or near the fore of Nablus politics since the 1950s, and he hopes his experience and family associations will catapult his National and Independent Nablus list to victory.

But prominent as the Shakaa name is, the Oct. 20 elections in Nablus and 103 other West Bank locales are at least as much about who is not running as who is.

'No reconciliation in sight'

Hamas, the militant Islamic rival to Fatah that rules the Gaza Strip, is boycotting the West Bank polling, despite decent chances of success in Nablus and an expected respectable showing elsewhere. In the last municipal vote in 2005, it swept to power in Nablus, Tulkarem, Qalqilya and other cities – a harbinger of its stunning victory in legislative elections a year later.

But Fatah would not allow Hamas to rule in Gaza despite its victory, so the frustrated movement staged an armed takeover of Gaza in 2007, splitting the Palestinian territories into two rival governments. Efforts to heal the rift have floundered, with each side unwilling to share power in its area of dominance. The decision by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, to go ahead with municipal elections and by Hamas to call on voters to boycott the election is causing further acrimony.

Abdullah Abdullah, a legislator from Fatah, argues that the Palestinian Authority cannot wait for reconciliation to go ahead with elections because municipal services and capabilities cannot be allowed to be stunted indefinitely.

"We cannot keep these municipalities on hold. Reconciliation is important but you need to look after the local water, garbage collection, electricity, and streets. We have to freshen our mandate for our municipal leaders. It's what democracy is all about," he says.

Facing growing economic discontent at home and a deadlock in negotiations with Israel, the Palestinian Authority sees the local elections as providing it with a potential, if limited, boost.

''What we are seeing is confirmation of the reality that there is no reconciliation in sight,'' says Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

After going so long without reconciliation, the self-ruled areas appear to be moving towards becoming two distinct entities.

''In practice [moving apart] is what's happening, though it is not taking place officially, and not in a declared way,'' says Hani Masri, head of the Badael (Alternatives) think tank in Ramallah.


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