Rivals Hamas, Fatah Gear Up for First Election Since 2006

SHECHEM (AP) -

Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah are gearing up for their first contest at the polls since 2006 — a vote for mayors and local councils in 425 communities in Yehudah and Shomron and the Gaza Strip.

Each side hopes the election will give it a foothold in what has been the other’s exclusive territory since mutual purges in 2007. At the time, Hamas seized Gaza, driving out Fatah, while Fatah’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, cracked down on Hamas in the autonomous areas of Yehudah and Shomron.

The Oct. 8 ballot might not allow either side to proclaim victory. Popular independents are part of the candidate mix, tribal loyalties often trump factional allegiances at the local level and Hamas activists can’t run openly in Yehudah and Shomron for fear of arrest by Israel.

But the election provides at least an indication of the popularity of Hamas and Fatah, after the foes shunned competitive elections over the past decade.

“Despite the fact that it (the election) is about services and municipal work, it’s purely political,” said senior Fatah figure Nabil Shaath.

Mutual suspicions were addressed as Hamas recognized Abbas’ general election commission as final arbiter, while Abbas agreed that Hamas institutions would supervise the vote in Gaza.

The split has been unpopular with Palestinians. Recent polls have indicated that two-thirds of Palestinians want Abbas to resign, and nearly one half of Gaza residents want to emigrate.

In this climate, the local elections are seen as a relatively low-risk move by both camps to restore some legitimacy. It was unclear whether the October ballot will lead to general elections.