HEBRON, West Bank — Wednesday noon, downtown Hebron. Registration for the various slates for the upcoming local elections will be closing in roughly 36 hours, and it is hard to sense anything unusual in the air. Those who see themselves as candidates are meeting with their advisers and their friends in anticipation of the official announcement of their candidacy, but no election posters have yet gone up in the city.
The well-known restaurants here — Al-Khalil, Abu Mazen, the Pasha’s Palace — are full of customers, and one would be hard-pressed to say that the residents are all that excited about the municipal elections planned for October 8.
The talk of the day, of all things, is an incident that took place here just about two weeks ago, when an argument between two kids devolved into a deadly armed battle between two clans in the city.
Yet although the public in Hebron seems somewhat indifferent to the elections, for the Fatah party, tensions are as high as the stakes.
These are the first elections in more than a decade in which voting is taking place at the same time in both Gaza and the West Bank, and Hamas and Fatah are going head-to-head.
Whatever the result, it will affect not only the status of these organizations but also of their leaders, and could even seep into the relationship between the Palestinians and Israel. While these elections are local, and won’t directly change anything politically or security-related between Israel and the Palestinian, a sweeping win by the hardline Islamist movement Hamas is still liable to ramp up the amount of suspicion and lack of trust between the two peoples.
As in the other cities in the West Bank, the trouble in Hebron is that because there are so many secular slates of candidates, there is a reasonable chance that the more moderate camp of Fatah and groups of its ilk will split the secular vote, paving the way for victory by Hamas candidates.
For Hamas’s leaders in Gaza and abroad, the vote marks an extraordinary opportunity to take stock of where public opinion stands.
But fear of arrests by Israel or the Palestinian Authority have kept Hamas from openly running its members for office in the municipalities, forcing the movement to content itself with semi-independent figures who are known as Hamas supporters.
The flip side is that should Hamas lose at the polls, the movement will be able to claim that the lists it ran were not really part of the group, exposing it to less potential damage in the vote than Fatah.
Like the parliamentary elections of 2006, these elections are more liable to show the degree of weakness of Fatah and the secular camp than the strength of Hamas.
Where enemies become friends, and friends enemies
One need only travel to nearby Yatta to see evidence of the risks of Fatah and the other moderates tearing themselves to bits.
A 20-minute drive from Hebron, Yatta is a town that has metastasized into something resembling a city of 120,000 people.
Although the elections are a month and a half away, the fighting has already begun. Attacks, violence, threats and the like have been reported, mainly between groups considered to be associated or affiliated with Fatah.
Hamas has refrained from running a list under its own name in Yatta. As in other locales, its leaders are in no hurry to present their candidates for fear of Israeli or Palestinian security. But it is promoting figures who are identified with it on independent or semi-independent lists.
One of those candidate slates is the Joint List, headed by outgoing mayor Musa al-Muhamra, who resigned from his position just last week to run in the election.
If his last name is familiar to readers, it is because the two terrorists who opened fire inside a restaurant at the Sarona market in Tel Aviv in June, killing four Israelis, are from the same clan, and the ruins of their demolished home can be seen fairly close to his own.
“My list contains representatives from the Arab Liberation Front, the Popular Front,” Muhamra says. “Several political movements are represented there. My list contains [representatives from] Hamas as independent representatives.”
In the past, Muhamra was a member of the People’s Party movement, which is considered left-wing, but he quit over its support of the Oslo Accords in 1993. His lefty past makes him an odd bedfellow for Hamas, and shows the lengths to which the Islamist movement is willing to go in order to see its candidates defeat Fatah.
The threat to Fatah is real enough that Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, who heads COGAT (the Israeli Defense Ministry body which administers the West Bank), and top Shin Bet officials have warned high-ranking PA officials that going ahead with the elections could be a dangerous gamble.
But PA President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted on holding the elections on schedule in order to demonstrate the existence of even a shred of democracy in the territories.
When I asked Muhamra about Israel’s connection with the local elections, he could hardly stem the flow of words.
“Unfortunately, there is more than one sign that [Israel] is interfering with the Palestinian elections, using people who are connected with the Israeli Civil Administration and also through direct interference by the State of Israel and its mechanisms to influence the elections.”
When asked if that means people are being “pushed” as candidates by Israel, he says “exactly.”
“It is pushing people, and it is playing a role in heating up the security situation and in the change that took place in the security situation on the Palestinian street as a result of this unfair and wrong interference,” he says.
Asked to explain how the Israelis are allegedly interfering, though, he answers in generalities, accusing Israel of using Palestinians who used liaise with the Civil Administration as agents to do its bidding.
“It interferes in everything that happens on the Palestinian street that has to do with elections and acts to keep Palestinian citizens from voting freely in the local elections,” he says. “Everybody knows that. It’s known on the street and in the Palestinian Authority that Israel is interfering directly in the elections. It has a certain specific attitude toward the various candidates.”
While Muhamra uses the term “Mordechai’s friends” again and again to refer to the colleagues of the COGAT commander, he never mentions the name of Ismail Abu Hamid, the other candidate, who is at the center of a political furor in Yatta.
Abu Hamid was mayor of Yatta until 1995. When the Palestinian Authority came into being, he left his position but is now considering running for mayor again.
Abu Hamid, who has Israeli citizenship, is the owner of a large fuel station at the entrance to the town. “I have a home in Beit Safafa,” he says, referring to a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, as well as businesses in the territories and in Israel.
A Hamas member he is not, and posters denouncing him as a collaborator with Israel have been put up all over town.
When we meet him, in a throng of people, he says his decision will come in the next few hours. (Indeed, the next day he filed as a candidate). Some of those around him are trying to help him decide, while others appear to be guarding him for fear that someone might try to harm him.
Abu Hamid says that his people have found the ones who were putting up the posters. “They fired a shot at me, but my cousins managed to get the gun away from them and hand it over to the Preventive Security Service,” he says.
What he leaves out is the fact that the people putting up the posters were members of Fatah who did not want to see Abu Hamid run in the elections and split the moderate vote.
“They put up posters against me saying that I was an agent, a member of Hamas, a member of the Civil Administration, that Israel had sent me. It is known who is responsible for these posters, but the PA is not taking any action. It’s not doing a thing. I demand that the PA act on the issue and prosecute all those responsible,” he says.
He says time and again that no Israeli ever spoke to him about the topic, and castigates those who criticize him for his connections with Israel.
“There is security coordination, after all,” he says, referring to cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on security matters in the West Bank. “There is coordination with the PA. So they’re attacking me for my own connection with Israel?”
Threat level: Moderate
It’s not only in Yatta that Fatah faces a threat from a candidate likely to nab votes from its clutches.
One of the most popular radio stations in Hebron is al-Huriya (Liberty), headed by journalist Ayman al-Qawasmeh. Qawasmeh, 43, is considered a key figure in the city and the district. One can see photographs of Yasser Arafat in his office, as well as the Palestine soccer cup that the Al-Ahli soccer club from Hebron won only several weeks ago in a game against the team from Khan Yunis.
Qawasmeh, who reopened the radio station in April after IDF troops shuttered it for for incitement to violence in November, has put his name up for mayor, at the top of a list of candidates entitled The Martyr Fahd al-Qawasmeh, named for the mayor of Hebron in the 1970s who was assassinated in Amman in 1984.
Qawasmeh says the decision to run was not made by him.
“The heads of 19 of the city’s families met in the Harat a-Sheikh [neighborhood] and chose me,” he tells me.
When I ask him whether the list will represent only his clan, he assures me that it contains representatives of many other families.
“We took into account the city’s geographical division into many neighborhoods and the division into clans, and we chose people of extraordinary quality,” says Qawasmeh.
Known in the past as being closer to Fatah, Qawasmeh now says he is trying to distance himself from the movement, and demurs when asked even if he defines himself as Hamas or Fatah.
“We define our movement as representing the people on the street, who actually represent the majority. Forty percent of the people belong to the movements, while 60% have no connection with, and are not members of, any group. Those people are our constituency,” he says.
Our representatives are members of the new generation, he adds. “We have brought in new faces. Our list contains more than one woman,” he says proudly.
He admits that he was pressured not to run, but repeats, “The decision to run for mayor was made for me.”
As we speak, it is still not clear who from Hamas or Fatah will run against him come October. But from a look at the candidates on his list, which includes friends gathered in his office, it’s clear, as in the case of Abu Hamid, that he’ll take more votes from Fatah.