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Palestine is adamant: Hamas will take
part in municipal and general elections

By Daoud Kuttab,
Arabic Media Internet Network

26 October 2005: Major Palestinian cities, like Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron, Gaza, Jenin, Rafah, are due to elect mayors and city councils in December 2005. The following month, the entire Palestinian public is due to elect a new legislative council. The city elections will be the first since 1976, legislative elections are the first since 1995. All city mayors in office today are appointed rather than elected. Legislators have been in office for ten years.

While municipal elections are generating interest in the major cities, it is the legislative elections that are the centre of focus, for two important reasons. This is the first time that the Islamic groups (predominantly Hamas) agree to participate in these elections, and they will be mixed. Palestinians will vote using two papers: one to choose 66 members based on district representation, and an equal number to be chosen based on party lists. The latter will be closely watched throughout the Arab world; they will be strengthening political parties and give credence to some of the smallest parties. Using this proportional representation will allow small parties, which might not be able to get a single candidate chosen in a particular district but a combination of votes from all over Palestine, to have a member or two from their party elected.

The pioneering nature of the elections, unfortunately, is not what has grabbed the headlines, but rather the fact that Hamas (as well as Islamic Jihad) plans to participate in the elections. Israeli opposition has varied from calls that any party participating in the elections recognise Israel first to calls for disarming the Islamic groups.

Palestinian officials, as well as the public at large, have been entirely supporting Hamas' right to participate in the elections. For years Palestinians have been trying to convince Hamas and Islamic Jihad to try and channel their energies through the ballot box and not through the bullet. In fact this is the exact terminology that Shimon Peres used in the past trying to encourage political empowerment of Palestinian militants.

Hamas has repeatedly rejected participation in the political process, stressing that it legitimises the Oslo process, which it opposed. But after five years of a military Intifada, which has shown the Islamic militants the limits of military action, moderate elements in Hamas finally prevailed and announced their agreement to participate in the upcoming legislative elections. The election participation was part of an agreement reached in Cairo with the active involvement of the head of the Egyptian intelligence service.

The Palestinian president promised that elections would take place in the summer of 2005; in return, the Islamic groups agreed to tahdia — a unilateral period of quiet. But the elections didn't take place in the summer for a variety of reasons, among which the fact that the election law had not been agreed upon by the legislature and President Mahmoud Abbas had little choice but to postpone the elections till January 2006. The Islamic groups initially protested this postponement but finally accepted it and began preparing for it.

Their success in the initial phase of the municipal elections seems to have worked negatively for them, worrying Israel and Washington. While most observers feel that Hamas and other Islamic candidates are not likely to win more than 30-35 per cent of the vote, Israel demanded that they not be allowed to participate in the elections. This and the fact that Israel has recently begun rounding up political leaders of Hamas (including the moderate Hassan Yousef who publicly accepted the two-state solution along the 1967 borders) is bound to increase the Islamic groups' popularity.

Islamic leaders have repeatedly said that they are not seeking a political coup in the elections but that they are serious about being part of the Palestinian decision-making process.

If the US and Israel want Hamas and Islamic Jihad to participate neither in the military struggle nor in the political arena, what is it that they want them to do?

This issue becomes even more sensitive when taken in the context of US efforts to spread democracy in the greater Middle East and its insistence that its democratic call don't exclude Muslim parties. Arabs and Muslims, as well as Palestinians, will be closely watching how the United States deals with this issue. If it fails this test, it is unlikely that its ideas will have any chance of success in other Arab or Muslim areas.

Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab, one of the best-known Palestinian journalists, has fought for a free media in Palestine under both the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority. Throughout his career, his creative initiatives have helped drive the development of an independent Palestinian press.

Born in Bethlehem on April 1, 1955, Kuttab began his career with the defunct English-language weekly Al-Fajr, working successively as a reporter, features editor, and managing editor from 1980 and 1987. After leaving Al-Fajr he worked as a reporter and columnist for the Arabic-language East Jerusalem daily, Al-Quds, where he was the first Palestinian to conduct exclusive interviews with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, as well as other Israeli leaders.

During this period, Kuttab was arrested, searched and fingerprinted by the Israeli authorities on several occasions for activities that included participation in public demonstrations against Israeli press censorship. Since the implementation of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, Kuttab has also been a vocal critic of the undemocratic treatment of the nascent Palestinian press by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, which has demonstrated little regard for critical reporting or freedom of expression.

In 1994 Arafat ordered Al-Quds to stop publishing Kuttab’s columns after he led independent journalists in a protest against the banning of Al-Nahar, Jerusalem’s only other Arabic-language daily at the time. Al-Quds gave in, and Kuttab was fired.

However, Kuttab refused to be silenced. He continued to write critical pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The International Herald Tribune, among other publications. As president of the Palestinian Audio-Visual Union, he protested against censorship and access violations by both the Israelis and the Palestinians. As co-director of Internews Middle East in 1996, Kuttab created the Arabic Media Internet Network in order to provide via the Internet censorship-free, Arab-language news to media organizations in the Middle East. In June 1996 he used this World Wide Web site to great effect when mobilizing support for Dr. Eyad Sarraj, a human rights activist arrested by the Palestinian Authority for his criticism of Arafat.

Kuttab was arrested without charge on May 20, 1997, by Palestinian police after broadcasting live proceedings of the Palestinian Legislative Council. In the weeks before his arrest, Kuttab’s live coverage had been repeatedly jammed by the Palestinian authorities. Kuttab had a contract with the Palestinian Authority to carry live broadcasts of the legislative council’s sessions on a TV station owned by Al Quds University, but Palestinian officials who were disturbed by the council’s criticism of Arafat and his policies summoned Kuttab to Ramallah, on the West Bank, where he was detained without charge. Following a campaign for his release by local and international press and human rights organizations, Kuttab was freed after a week in detention. Returning to his home in East Jerusalem on 28 May, he vowed not to be intimidated by further attempts to gag him.

Kuttab, who is also the founder and former president of the Jerusalem Film Institute, is currently director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University and remains co-director of Internews Middle East, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization based in Jerusalem that supports independent media in the region. (Profile by the International Press Institute)