Palestinian Authority To Hold Elections Without Gaza

The Palestinian Authority says it will hold municipal elections in July without the participation of the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas. So far, the militant group has blocked election preparations in Gaza and said it would not participate in the West Bank polls.

The Palestinian Authority will hold elections this summer without the participation of the Gaza Strip, sources told NPR Wednesday.

The militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, has refused to allow elections to take place in the coastal enclave until a reconciliation agreement is signed between Hamas and Fatah, the party that dominates in the West Bank.

It's another sign that the divisions between the West Bank and Gaza are becoming more permanent.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said that the decision has been taken to move ahead with municipal elections on July 17 in the West Bank only.

During a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad shared with Cabinet members a letter from the Central Elections Commission that said it would not be able to hold elections in Gaza because Hamas is preventing its preparations, Khatib said.

"And the Cabinet is determined to proceed with elections in the West Bank," he added.

The Palestinian Authority has threatened several times in recent months to hold the polls without the participation of Hamas in Gaza. Many see it as a tactic to place pressure on the Islamist group to sign a reconciliation agreement.

Hamas won the last round of elections in 2006. But because it is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the West, the group found it almost impossible to rule. It tried to form a government with rival Fatah, but open war broke out between the two factions in 2007, leading to Fatah's expulsion from Gaza.

Since then, Hamas and Fatah have been holding largely fruitless negotiations to restore Palestinian unity.

But the Palestinian Authority has waited long enough, Khatib says.

"I think the Palestinian side and Palestinian democracy and good governance should not be hostage to any factor [such as] Hamas' position and behavior," he said.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum decried the decision to go forward with the elections.

"This type of action will enhance the division between Gaza and the West Bank, and it indicates that Fatah has no intention of reconciling. They are trying to isolate the Gaza Strip and uproot Hamas from the West Bank," he said.

Khalil Shaheen is a Palestinian political analyst who writes for Al-Ayaam, a newspaper linked to the Palestinian Authority.

He says that if the municipal elections proceed without the participation of Gaza, it could prompt Hamas to hold its own unilateral elections.

"Hamas will retaliate by holding elections in the Gaza Strip alone -- which means that this would make the situation more complicated ... trying to achieve a Palestinian internal agreement about reconciliation," Shaheen says.

The upcoming vote will determine the makeup of local councils and mayorships. Hamas won big in the West Bank in the last municipal elections, but the group says it won't run in these.

And that, say some analysts, could deal a major blow to Hamas' political power in the West Bank.

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