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EghtesadOnline: The Palestinians are holding their first election in a decade in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, giving Hamas militants an opening to entrench their influence in President Mahmoud Abbas’s stronghold.

Risking a humiliating reprise of his Fatah party’s unexpected defeat in 2006 parliamentary balloting, Abbas has challenged Hamas to face off against his Fatah party in municipal elections on Oct. 8. The group -- labeled a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and European Union -- sees an opportunity to extend its influence beyond its Gaza bastion to Abbas’s West Bank base, a Hamas co-founder said.

“We will accept the results if the people choose Fatah, but if the people choose Hamas, Fatah has to accept those results too,” Mahmoud Zahar said.

The Palestinians haven’t held legislative elections since Hamas’s 2006 upset victory, and Abbas has ruled by fiat since his four-year term expired in 2009. Because Hamas boycotted the last municipal balloting in 2012, the local vote is the closest thing in a decade to a referendum on his rule, according to Bloomberg.

Abbas’s failure to win an independent state of Palestine in negotiations with Israel has undercut his legitimacy, and pollsshow the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, beating him if presidential elections were held now. Corruption allegations have also cost Fatah support.

Israel worries that new strength for Hamas in the West Bank could make it more of a military threat and position it to wrest control there, as it did in Gaza, once the 81-year-old Abbas departs. 

Risky Gambit

The president called the municipal vote even though Fatah is liable to fare badly because he expected Hamas to boycott again, said Jehad Harb, a researcher at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. The militant group is risking losses in Gaza because it wants to gauge its influence in the West Bank, he added.

Over the years, Hamas has gained popularity in the West Bank, even as it lost support in impoverished and isolated Gaza, which it has ruled since a violent takeover from Palestinian Authority security forces in 2007.

A Hamas victory in October would “be seen as an endorsement of their strategy of resistance against the Israeli occupation,” said Hassan Abdo, director of the Gaza Center for Research and Studies. “If they lose, they still won’t give up control of the Gaza government.”

In Gaza, Hamas may lose control of some municipalities if the voting is fair, said Hani Habib, a political scientist at Gaza University.

“People are angry because Hamas has failed to provide basic services while demanding that they pay taxes,” Habib said. “They’ve suffered for years and the elections are an opportunity to show their unhappiness.”

Lingering Rift

While some observers say the municipal vote may presage national elections, others think Hamas and Fatah first need to mend their rift -- and that local elections might cement it. Zahar said even if Hamas shows well in local councils, it won’t set it sights on the presidency for fear that would cost the Palestinians vital international donations, as happened after it won the 2006 balloting.

Prominent Hamas figures running in the West Bank will avoid using the movement’s name to minimize political and financial fallout from Fatah and Israel if they win, Harb said.

Israel can react in various ways if Hamas makes gains, said Benedetta Berti, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. In the past, she noted, it has withheld taxes and customs fees it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

“They will send signals to Ramallah and talk to the international community about the fact this could be a potentially destabilizing problem,” Berti said.

In the meantime, both Fatah and Hamas have accused Israel of trying to derail the vote. On Aug. 16 Israeli security forces arrested Hussein Abu Kweik, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, days after he was appointed the group’s only representative on the Palestinian Central Elections Commission.

Israel said Abu Kweik was arrested on suspicion of incitement and involvement in “activities that presented a threat to security.”

Arrested Fees Influence Vote West