World Bulletin / News Desk
The political gap between the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip has widened after the Palestinian Supreme Court ruled last week that municipal polls would not be held in the latter, according to a senior Hamas official.
In exclusive comments to Anadolu Agency, Basem Naim, a former health minister in Gaza’s Hamas-run government, said the decision -- in which Gaza’s courts were deemed "illegitimate" -- had further eroded chances for reconciliation between the two territories.
"The decision of the court is a real catastrophe," said Naim, who heads the Gaza-based Council on International Relations.
"Before the decision of the court, there was a division between Gaza and Ramallah -- but it was a political division," he asserted. "Today, after the court's decision, it's not only a political division -- it is a political plus a legal division."
He went on to say that the Supreme Court’s description of courts in Gaza as "illegitimate" would lead to "social chaos", because it would effectively render redundant all decisions made by courts in Gaza over the last decade of Hamas rule -- including on domestic issues like marriage and divorce.
Though the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) has said polling should eventually go ahead as planned in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Naim said he no longer expects elections to be conducted at all.
Elections, he said, should not be called in the first place until a degree of reconciliation is achieved between Hamas, who runs the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which leads the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and is led by President Mahmoud Abbas.
But the notion of reconciliation between the rival factions -- which have been at odds since Hamas won legislative polls in 2006 then took control of Gaza in 2007 -- now seems more distant than ever, according to Naim.
"Before the decision of the court, there was no confidence between the different parties," he said. "Today this situation has deepened. Confidence is weakened; the public… is disappointed."
The process of reconciliation, he lamented, "is becoming more difficult".
While Naim said that Fatah had used the court ruling as a means of stopping elections in which it feared it would suffer losses, former PLO minister Ghassan Khatib said the PA had been happy to go ahead with the polls -- until courts in Gaza excluded Fatah candidates.
"Courts in Gaza are politicized… that decision [to exclude Fatah candidates] was motivated by attempts to weaken the chances of Fatah to win elections in Gaza -- especially as Hamas is not that popular in Gaza, while it's relatively popular in the West Bank," said Khatib, who is now a professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
Unlike Naim, Khatib said he did not believe the election controversy would cause any further damage to reconciliation efforts, since the two sides were already a long way from achieving any degree of unity.
"The split is already deep enough... we cannot keep using the deepening of the split as an excuse to avoid doing things," he said. "Let us work out things in a logical way for the benefit of the Palestinian people."
He added: "Whenever the political situation allows an ending of the split [between Hamas and Fatah], it will be ended."
- New chief
While much of the focus of Hamas' recent political activities has been on its participation in now-postponed local polls, the movement is now also preparing to choose a new leader after it was announced that the group’s longtime chief, Khaled Meshaal, would be stepping down having reached the limit of his term according to Hamas’ internal bylaws.
While the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, is reportedly eyeing the group’s leadership, Naim said the party's overall direction was not likely to change dramatically -- regardless of who its next leader is.
"Hamas is not a person. It is not Khaled Meshaal or Haniyeh or [Mahmoud] Zahar," he said. "Hamas is a foundation, an institution. All the decisions are taken based on Shura [consensus], at all levels and in different areas: in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank and outside the country."
"At the end of the day," Naim added, "the decision is the decision of the movement and the leader should follow this policy."
Hamas faced numerous domestic difficulties, Naim admitted, but these, he said, had been caused mainly by pressures imposed by the decade-long Israeli/Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip -- which, he said, had been largely forgotten by the international community, the attention of which is now focused mostly on Syria.
As Hamas leader, Meshaal had once been based in Damascus, but Naim said that -- despite the group’s previously close relationship with the Syrian government -- Hamas, as a "resistance movement looking for freedom", could not reject similar calls by the Syrian people and had since distanced itself from the Assad regime.
"What we are asking for, we cannot say to other people, 'No, this is not your right.' Therefore, morally, we cannot have another standpoint except being beside the people who are asking for dignity, welfare and peace," he said.
"The first step is to stop this war [in Syria]; to stop this massacre," Naim added. "Stop killing innocent people for political or ethnic causes."
"And second," he said, "is giving the Syrian people the chance to decide… what kind of government -- of political system -- they want."