Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Palestinian split looms large in West Bank vote

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinians voted for local councils in West Bank towns Saturday, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement didn't get the sweeping endorsement they had hoped for — even as archrival Hamas boycotted the vote.

Turnout was just under 55 percent, reflecting voter apathy, and in several key towns, Fatah renegades won more council seats than candidates endorsed by Abbas' party, election officials said.

The rivalry between Fatah and the Islamic militant Hamas also loomed large over the first Palestinian ballot in six years. The rift, which broke open after Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, made it unlikely the vote will be followed any time soon by overdue elections for parliament and president.

Hamas prevented voting in the Gaza Strip and boycotted the contest in the West Bank, arguing that elections can only be held once Hamas and Fatah reconcile. "We ask to stop this disgrace," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

Saeb Erekat, an Abbas aide, countered that "Hamas cannot have a veto on democracy." Critics say the group banned voting in Gaza to prevent largely vanquished rivals, particularly from Fatah, from gaining a new foothold there.

The election was held at a time when Abbas' Palestinian Authority, a self-rule government in parts of the Israeli-controlled West Bank, is facing a slew of difficulties.

It is mired in a chronic cash crisis and has struggled to cover the government payroll. Efforts to heal the Palestinian political split have failed. And prospects are virtually nil for resuming meaningful talks with Israel on setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in 1967.

"Fatah has been suffering two big crises, the failure of the peace process and the failure of the government to provide salaries and proper services," said analyst Bassem Zbaidi. "It resorted to the elections to get legitimacy, but the movement did not do well in the elections."

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