x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Hamas bans vote in Gaza

Hamas declares it will not allow elections in the Gaza Strip early next year, further ratcheting tensions between the Islamist movement and Fatah.

Hamas yesterday declared that it would not allow elections in the Gaza Strip early next year, further ratcheting tensions between the Islamist movement and Fatah. The Hamas-run interior ministry in Gaza City said last week's decree by the president, Mahmoud Abbas, calling for parliamentary and presidential voting on January 24 was made "by someone who has no right to make such an announcement". Any campaigning was therefore illegal, said a ministry spokesman, Ehab al Ghsain.

"Any preparations, any committees, any collecting of names will be regarded as an illegal action that we will pursue," Mr al Ghsain said. There was no immediate reaction from Mr Abbas's office in Ramallah. With the scheduled elections still 11 weeks away, it was not immediately clear if Hamas would follow through on its threat to ban campaigning and balloting in the Gaza Strip or whether it was another move in a game of political brinkmanship between the movement and the Washington-backed Mr Abbas.

The two have been sharply at odds since the long-dominant Fatah was defeated in parliamentary elections in 2006 and was driven out of Gaza 17 months later in a spate of violent confrontations. The latest tiff in their long-running quarrel began last week, when Hamas spurned a draft reconciliation deal brokered by Egypt, which would have set June 28 as the date for the next election. Although Mr Abbas and Fatah approved the pact, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, insisted that the draft agreement must be amended to say Palestinians have the right to keep fighting Israel. In response to the rebuff, Mr Abbas issued the election decree, apparently in the hope of pressuring Hamas into shifting its position.

With the latest imbroglio, both the Hamas government in Gaza City and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority centred in Ramallah are apparently hoping that the election card will work in their favour. Mr Abbas could proceed with elections solely in the West Bank, and Hamas could act on its threat to hold its own balloting in the Gaza Strip - each camp blaming the other for the deep fault line running through Palestinian politics.

In this game of chess, however, each side courts the risk that it will be held most to blame by Palestinians for that fault line. Hamas has already been weakened by the continued economic embargo of the Gaza Strip, while Mr Abbas has been publicly reviled by many Palestinians for agreeing - under pressure from the United States - to delay action on a United Nations report detailing evidence of possible war crimes, mainly by Israel, but also by Hamas last winter.

Mr Abbas has since reversed his position, but the renewed perception that he is more attuned to Washington and Israel than to the grievances of Palestinians has hurt him. For one thing, it appears to have emboldened Hamas in the latest scrap. "We still stress the need for a reconciliation, but there were some changes on the ground, most important of which was the behaviour of the Palestinian Authority - which caused wide anger inside and outside Palestine," Sami Khater, a Hamas official in Syria, told the Associated Press last week.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian divide gives the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu a potent excuse to avoid dealing with the Palestinian issue at all and significantly weakens the demands of the Obama administration that it do so. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is due on Sunday in Jerusalem and Ramallah, where she is expected to press Mr Abbas to reopen talks with Israel on a peace agreement.