Four years after Hamas won an upset victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, prompting swift international sanctions and a Western-led diplomatic boycott, the mandate for the parliament it dominated officially expired on Monday.
But continued political division between the West Bank, governed by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority (PA), and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, has delayed the elections indefinitely.
Hamas denounced allegations from the West Bank that its government is now no longer legitimate. But with both sides now trading accusations over the legality of the other’s rule, the recent impasse could mean an even more fractured and debilitated political landscape in the Palestinian territories, analysts say.
“It seems to me, with the rhetoric of the past few days, that we are approaching a period of even more division and more internal political problems,” says Gaza-based political analyst, Mukhaimar Abusaada. “The most important thing right now is that Hamas is in control, and it has the recognition of several European nations. They feel now that they can do whatever they want.”
Hamas support slipping
While Hamas is firmly in control of the Gaza Strip, its popularity here has waned as residents become increasingly desperate under a tight Israeli blockade. While the United States, the European Union, and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization, the Islamist movement had cultivated broad public support with its popular social programs ahead of the last elections. Anger at corruption within Fatah also fueled their victory.
But after four years of governing, during which Gaza's economy collapsed, Hamas' fortunes have changed. A December poll released by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Survey and Research (PCSR), found that only 27 percent of respondents in the West Bank and Gaza said they would vote for Hamas in parliamentary elections. In contrast, 43 percent said they would vote for Fatah, which has recognized Israel and is the dominant force in Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.
“Hamas is unsure, after four years of the siege and of war, that they will do well in any future elections,” says Mr. Abusaada. “Before elections are held, they want guarantees that even if they lose, they will still be a part of the system – that they will still get their piece of the Palestinian political pie.”
Hamas says the Fatah-led government in the West Bank is illegal, after Abbas unilaterally extended his own term early last year, and reappointed a “caretaker government” led by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad without elections or Hamas support.
“We have a legitimate right to defend the moral authority of the government here. It is our right, as the winners of the Palestinian elections,” Mr. Yusuf says. “We were the people’s choice, and because of that we are responsible for their interests.”
Palestinian state even farther off now
The Islamist Hamas and the more secular-minded Fatah have been bitter rivals since the two battled it out on Gaza’s streets in 2007. Hamas routed Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, reducing his area of control to just the West Bank. Hamas has ruled the embattled Gaza Strip ever since.
Numerous rounds of Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation efforts over the past two years have so far failed to produce an agreement aimed at establishing a unity government that would pave the way for Palestinian elections.
Omar Shaban, director of the Gaza-based Palestinian think tank Pal-Think, which works on Palestinian reconciliation efforts, says Hamas’s time in power has turned the organization into a more pragmatic movement ready to talk to the West. But he is afraid that because today’s deadline passed without any elections, Palestinians are further than ever from creating a democratic state.
“The dream that we had, to build a state and a viable political system, it is no longer feasible now that today has passed,” says Mr. Shaban. “How can we do this now when we can’t even have simple elections?”