Vital lessons, signs of hope from West Bank city's vote


Whoever best learns the lessons from the West Bank city of Qalqilyah will determine the future of Palestine and will greatly influence Israeli-Palestinian relations and the future of democratization in the Arab world.

Qalqilyah, situated on the frontier with Israel about nine miles from the Mediterranean Sea, is the only city where Hamas won zero district seats in the Jan. 25 Palestinian Legislative Council elections. This is remarkable because Qalqilyah is also the only city where Hamas had assumed complete municipal power after sweeping elections a year ago.

The city is known for its staunch, sometimes violent opposition to the Israeli occupation.

As Palestinian villages and cities were given the first opportunity to elect municipal leaders, Hamas received its strongest mandate in Qalqilyah, totally dominating local affairs.

Hamas imposed hard-line social limitations, both legal and societal, ranging from forcing women to wear hijabs (headscarves) to preventing a popular Palestinian singer from setting up a musical festival. In one particularly egregious affair, the local Hamas authorities segregated the Qalqilyah zoo, the only one in the West Bank, separating men and women.

Residents also resented an increased electricity tax to cover the payroll for a contingent of new municipal employees viewed as party cronies.

These restrictions did not sit well with Qalqilyans, and the district of 110,000 denied any local seat to Hamas-backed parliamentary candidates.

Does democracy work? Qalqilyah portends it can. But several ingredients must be present for "democracy" to be concomitant with good governance, progress and freedom.

The lesson for Fatah is that Palestinians are prepared to hold their leaders accountable and that corruption, internal divisions, lack of campaign discipline or strategy and poor governance will not be tolerated when people are given the chance to vote.

The lesson for Hamas is that it, too, will be held accountable. As with most political parties immediately after winning elections, Hamas is experiencing a honeymoon, during which its popularity is rising. But it should not take its popularity for granted.

Its constituents voted for its platform of "change and reform," not for violent absolutism or social infringements on their freedom. They will be quickly disillusioned if Hamas does not deliver.

Eighty-four percent of Palestinians polled about the time of the elections supported negotiations toward a two-state solution. And, according to the latest poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 75 percent of Palestinians say Hamas should engage Israel in peace negotiations while 64 percent identify themselves as supporters of the peace process.

Forty-four percent believe the most serious problem confronting the Palestinians today is unemployment and poverty, 25 percent believe it is the continuation of the occupation and 24 percent believe it is corruption and lack of reforms.

Addressing most of these challenges will require international support, which hinges on pragmatism and moderation. It remains to be seen whether local Hamas leaders will heed that call or will be unduly influenced by ideological leaders too closely aligned to Syria and Iran.

The lesson for the international community and Palestinian civic leadership is that moderate progressive leadership and competent governance can only emerge when viable candidacies exist and alternative moderate networks are supported.

Fatah and Hamas have invested years building grassroots socio-political networks. Fatah is financially sustained by international donations from when it was the ruling party. Hamas is bolstered by $120 million in annual funding from the Islamic Republic of Iran, not to mention Arab donors. In contrast, progressive independent candidates lack grassroots networks and their cumulative campaign operational budgets were estimated at under $10 million.

In surveying the complete results of the January elections, the one commonality that held up throughout all districts was that Palestinians rejected those in power. The problem is they had few alternatives.

Palestinian nongovernmental organizations must do better at training the next generation of mainstream Palestinian leaders to organize themselves, to build a grassroots infrastructure, to communicate and to develop coherent policy platforms that can improve the lives of their people. They must recognize their own failures and shortcomings - insufficient cooperation, independence and boldness of purpose. The international community must do better at shoring up these organizations.

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