Voci d’Arabia

LOCAL PALESTINIAN ELECTIONS SEEN AS GAUGE OF LEADERSHIP’S SWAY

By Ken Ellingwood

Los Angeles Times

 

Kalkilya, West Bank — Amid colorful campaign banners and blaring

car horns, Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip

voted Thursday in municipal elections seen as a bellwether for the

new Palestinian leadership’s prospects in parliamentary balloting

this summer.

 

At stake were 84 local councils and races focused primarily on

hometown issues such as roads, schools and sewage.

 

But the vote tallies were sure to be read as a sign of the relative

strength of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah

organization and of the Islamic group Hamas, which did well in two

earlier rounds of local balloting and plans to field candidates in

the parliamentary elections in July.

 

Official counts were to be announced Sunday. Firas Yagi, executive

director of the Palestinian local elections commission, told Voice

of Palestine radio station today that Fatah appeared to have won in

slightly more than half of the communities and Hamas in a third of

them.

 

The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research conducted an

exit poll in the 14 largest municipalities voting that showed Fatah

winning council majorities in six and Hamas in two, with the others

split or dominated by other parties.

 

“The results will be an indication of who supports” Abbas’

government, said Ali Issam Nazzal, a 32-year-old insurance agent in

Kalkilya who cast his vote for Fatah, one of three slates on the

ballot here.

 

“I’m supporting a bloc that supports Abu Mazen and the Palestinian

government,” he said, referring to Abbas by his nickname. “I’m also

looking for [local] services, but mainly my message is a political

message.”

 

Kalkilya, with 46,000 residents, was the biggest of 76 West Bank

communities electing local leaders Thursday. In the Gaza Strip,

residents voted in eight communities, including Rafah, an

impoverished city of 187,000 that has seen frequent clashes between

Palestinian militants and Israeli troops in more than four years of

fighting.

 

“All the people here hope that the current faces on these councils

will be changed,” said Midhat abu Khaled, a 30-year-old Hamas

supporter in Rafah. He said a victory by the Hamas bloc would

“change the structure of the municipality.”

 

Voting overall was reported to be generally smooth, with turnout

topping 80% in some areas.

 

Analysts cautioned against reading the municipal results too

broadly, noting that family ties and personal reputation were more

likely than party labels to swing local contests. In Kalkilya, for

example, four major families were represented; one of them, the

Nazzal clan, boasted nine candidates across all three slates.

 

“The local elections are primarily service elections. They are not

primarily a measure of the popularity of Abu Mazen or Hamas,” said

Muhannad Abdel Hamid, a columnist for Al Ayyam, a newspaper

affiliated with Fatah.

 

Still, activists on all sides viewed the votes as an important

dress rehearsal for the July 17 parliamentary contest.

 

In Kalkilya, honking taxis bristled with party flags — yellow for

Fatah, green for Hamas — while boys in baseball caps passed out

campaign leaflets at the entrances to polling stations.

 

It has been a heady season for Palestinians, who see such

electioneering as a sign of democracy in the making. In addition to

two previous rounds of municipal voting — the first since the 1970s

— voters swept Abbas into office by a wide margin during a

presidential election in January.

 

“It is very exciting. We are feeling that there is democracy,” said

Talal Awinat, a 45-year-old math teacher supervising a polling

station in Kalkilya.

 

The local elections are the first step into electoral politics for

Hamas, whose military wing has carried out dozens of suicide

bombings and other attacks against Israelis since the outbreak of

violence in 2000.

 

Hamas’ network of social services has gained the group a fervent

following, especially among the poorest Palestinians in Gaza Strip

refugee camps.

 

Hamas is emerging as the main challenger to Fatah, which was formed

by Yasser Arafat and has dominated Palestinian politics for

decades. Hamas candidates have played up religion and portrayed

themselves as an antidote to the corruption and cronyism that

flourished in the Palestinian Authority under Arafat, who died in

November.

 

“The important thing is to get Fatah out,” said Issa Safiri, a

vegetable vendor in Kalkilya.

 

Safiri, 45, said Abbas had failed to improve the lives of ordinary

Palestinians during nearly four months in office, though he added

that restrictions imposed by Israel had not helped.

 

Kalkilya is nearly enclosed by a series of Israeli-built fences and

a 25-foot-high concrete wall, and residents say the barrier has

made their economy wither. Israel says the barrier, part of a huge

divider in and around the West Bank, has kept suicide bombers out

of Israel.

 

Safiri, who voted for Hamas and independent candidates, said the

divider has cut his family off from four acres of farmland.

 

But some voters expressed worry that Hamas would impose a social

code that would be overly rigid. A 33-year-old farmer, Mohammed

Bakr Nazzal, said he was turned off by a Hamas suggestion to open

the local zoo to men and women on separate days.

 

“This kind of idea harms the social fabric,” he said. “It’s too

extreme. It’s not even realistic.”

 

 

GAZA WITHDRAWAL REQUIRES SOLID LEADERSHIP AND GUIDANCE

By Rafi Dajani and Daniel Levy

Detroit Free Press, Opinion

 

As America busies itself with the first 100 days of the second Bush

administration, Israelis and Palestinians are engaged with marking

two other 100-day yardsticks that may define their respective

futures. We have just marked the first 100 days of President

Mahmoud Abbas, and are fast approaching 100 days to the Israeli

withdrawal from Gaza.

 

At this critical juncture, the majority of Israelis and

Palestinians may finally be realizing that they sink or swim

together. For the Abbas government and the Gaza withdrawal both to

succeed would be good news for Israelis and Palestinians alike, as

well as for the United States.

 

Abbas represents pragmatism, reform and the inadmissibility of the

use of violence. A complete Gaza withdrawal represents hope for

both peoples, and a long overdue Israeli recognition that only

leaving the occupied Palestinian territories can guarantee Israel’s

future as a Jewish and democratic nation, and end the situation

whereby the settler tail has been wagging the dog.

 

But the success of both will require heavy lifting by the United

States.

 

Following his internationally monitored election victory, Abbas has

fulfilled several key requirements of both the road map and the

Sharm el-Sheik understandings.

 

He has begun consolidating the Palestinian Authority security

services, replaced the leadership of the security branches with

younger, professional heads, as well as retiring 1,150 senior

personnel.

 

Most significantly Abbas has ended the intifada, something Israel

was unable to do for over four years despite deploying its

considerable military force. He has pursued an unequivocal platform

of renouncing violence and embracing the political process as the

only way Palestinians will achieve nationhood. Progress on internal

reform and combating corruption has proceeded too, albeit at a

slower pace, in the face of entrenched opposition.

 

Israel’s response can at best be described as “wait and see.” By

adopting this default position, Israeli actions serve to undermine

Abbas with his own public, and to strengthen the position of

Palestinian militant groups. This makes Palestinian Authority

security reform more difficult and increases the prospects of an

opposition victory in upcoming Palestinian legislative elections, a

victory that would seriously challenge Abbas’ political platform.

 

As the party with the most control over the daily lives of ordinary

Palestinians, there is much more Israel can do without compromising

its security in any way. These steps include freezing settlement

activity, the release of Palestinian prisoners held without charge

or trial and the removal of the numerous West Bank checkpoints that

serve only to cripple Palestinian social, educational and economic

life and generate hostility.

 

To realize the viable two-nation solution that Israelis,

Palestinians and Americans have all apparently signed up for, there

will need to be an empowered Palestinian partner and an end to

creating facts on the ground, mainly settlement expansion, that

negatively prejudice this desired outcome.

 

The interests of the parties can coincide. This will mean all

sides, America included, delivering on their commitments.

 

The importance of the Gaza withdrawal should not be minimized, but

there is an urgency to Israel implementing its commitments to

improve daily Palestinian life and cease creating new obstacles on

the ground.

 

This is critical in demonstrating to Palestinians that their

president and his way can deliver for them. It would legitimatize

his platform of negotiations and reform as the road to independence

and freedom. Equally important, it would minimize the resonance of

militant claims that Israel is withdrawing from Gaza because of

violent resistance.

 

The consequences of the failure of Abbas’ presidency include the

very real possibility of a return to violence and a third intifada.

 

Even more ominous are implications for both Palestinian and Mideast

moderates; that their method of negotiation, engagement in a

political process and the shunning of violence is fruitless.

 

For the United States, a successful peace process and Palestinian

nation will remove the major irritant in relations with the Arab

and Muslim worlds, eliminate the major recruiting tool for

extremists and greatly increase prospects of democratization in the

Middle East.

 

According to polls, a viable and contiguous Palestinian nation that

meets the national aspirations of the Palestinian people, alongside

a secure and recognized Israel that remains demographically Jewish,

is a goal shared by the majority of Israelis and Palestinians.

 

The Geneva Initiative gave an example of how this might be

achieved. If Israel leaves Gaza in 100 days, it might be the

beginning, not the end, of a process leading to real peace

negotiations and the end of both occupation and conflict.

 

This will require the active resumption of American leadership in

Mideast peace-making.

 

Israelis, Palestinians, and yes, Americans, deserve no less.

 

Rafi Dajani is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based

American Task Force on Palestine. Daniel Levy is lead drafter of

the Geneva Initiative and former Israeli negotiator and adviser in

the Prime Minister’s Office.

 

 

FATAH FENDS OFF BIG HAMAS GAINS IN PALESTINIAN POLL

By Harvey Morris

Financial Times (UK)

 

Beit Jala, West Bank – Mahmoud Abbas’s ruling Fatah movement

managed to fend off big gains from Hamas in Palestinian municipal

elections, despite a strong showing by the Islamic militant group,

unofficial final results showed on Friday.

 

The Palestinian Election Committee said Fatah won control of 52 of

84 municipal councils across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to 24

for Hamas. Smaller factions took four councils, with four

municipalities undecided.

 

An election official said, with 60 per cent of the ballots counted

in the two territories, Fatah candidates won 60 per cent of the

votes. Official results are expected on Sunday, but Fatah activists

already took to the streets of Gaza on Thursday to celebrate.

 

Hamas, which made inroads in several key population centres,

disputed the figures and said it was not ready to concede defeat in

the local elections that have provided a dress rehearsal for a

parliamentary poll this summer.

 

Hamas had been expected to make more gains against Fatah after an

earlier round of municipal elections in January saw the Islamists

gain control of a majority of the municipal councils they

contested.

 

Political analysts attributed Hamas’s gains in January to a

widespread protest vote against Fatah, a party identified with

corruption and inefficiency in the Palestinian Authority during the

lifetime of its former leader, the late Yassir Arafat.

 

In February Hamas signed up to a ceasefire with Israel, brokered by

Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Arafat’s successor as PA president. It will be

standing in national elections for the first time when Palestinians

vote for a new parliament on July 17.

 


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