Cash-strapped Hamas faces local elections & internal leadership changes
BY Ben White
In Gaza, the movement is strapped for cash, as the territory’s residents continue to suffer under Israel’s illegal blockade.
The unemployment rate in the first quarter of 2016 stood at 41.2 percent, while 80 percent of the population depends on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs.
The Egyptians, meanwhile, are keeping the Rafah crossing almost entirely shut, and have cracked down on the cross-border tunnels that were a major boost to Gaza’s economy.
Last month, in a sign of the strain, it was reported that Hamas authorities in Gaza had begun distributing plots of land to some 40,000 civil servants owed millions of dollars in unpaid salaries.
With the formation of the 2014 national unity government, Mahmoud Abbas refused to pay employees hired post-2007, when Hamas took control of the Strip.
Putting Hamas-hired civil servants on the payroll would have been strongly opposed by the Palestinian Authority’s international donors.
Since then, Hamas has periodically paid a portion of the 40,000 or so employees’ salaries, a serious financial headache that was behind the Gaza governments’ decision to up taxes earlier this year.
Qatar stepped in recently, covering a full month’s salary for Gaza’s civil servants.
Yet, such measures as the land giveaway and Qatar’s intervention, are only sticking-plaster solutions to a bigger problem.
Should the Gaza Strip remain as isolated as it is now, Hamas’s financial woes will not improve any time soon.
The Unwanted Elections
A second challenge facing Hamas comes in the shape of the forthcoming local elections, scheduled to take place in more than 400 town and village councils across the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) on October 8.
In 2005, the last time that local elections were held across the OPT, Hamas won 34 out of 68 local bodies in the West Bank, and four of seven in the Gaza Strip. In 2012, a Hamas boycott meant that local elections were only held in the West Bank.
Three weeks after the formal announcement of the October elections, Hamas revealed that the movement would participate, stating that it would work for the success of these elections and will facilitate them in the interest of the people and the (Palestinian) cause.
More recently, a spokesperson for the movement clarified that Hamas will head to the polls with a technocrats-based list.
Speaking at Friday prayers on August 4, Gaza-based senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh stressed the importance of the elections taking place as planned.
Hamas, Haniyeh said, believes that the elections will shake-up our political situation, which is stagnant due to the sabotage of previous elections and reconciliation agreements.
For Belal Shobaki, assistant professor at the department of political science at Hebron University and policy member at Al Shabaka, Hamas wants to get rid of the full responsibility in Gaza Strip, but without losing its security and political control.
Certainly for Hamas to have refused to participate would have created the impression of a movement that is an obstacle to democratic change.
The Power Struggle
The polls also offer Hamas an opportunity to assess its popularity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Fatah remains divided, not least as various individuals manoeuvre and compete for the post-Abbas era.
Holding local elections across the occupied Palestinian territories is also a necessary first step to have any hope of advancing national unity, and moving towards possible presidential and legislative elections.
The decision is also risky, however. The crucial point, Shobaki tells Newsweek Middle East, is whether Fatah will resolve its internal divisions, and form a joint list with other Palestinian Liberation Organization factions.
That would put Hamas in an awkward position, and it could expect losses at the polls.
But the October vote is not the only ballot looming.
Expectations are that the movement’s internal elections will take place by the end of the year, with current Political Bureau Chief Khaled Meshaal reportedly not standing for re-election.
Possible successors include Mousa Abu Marzouk, current deputy leader and the first head of Hamas’s politburo, or even Ismail Haniyeh.
Another figure mooted in the media has been Gaza-based senior Al Qassam Brigades figure Yahya Sinwar.
New Challenges Ahead
Whoever assumes the role will inherit significant challenges; managing relations with Egypt and other states in an unstable region, the need to find a formula for genuine reconciliation with Fatah, and the continued chokehold of Israeli blockade, settlements, and occupation.
Later this December, Hamas is set to mark the anniversary of its founding, and enter its 30th year.
The movement, and the political circumstances in which it operates, have seen dramatic changes over the years.
Hamas leaders will need creativity and flexibility to navigate current internal and external challenges that are certainly as serious as any the movement has faced in its three-decade history.